It can be easy to overlook the fact that Mitch Haniger is still on the Seattle Mariners. The guy last played in a baseball game on June 6, 2019. That’s when he formally went down with what has been described as an oblique injury (there was also something about a ruptured testicle that I seem to have blocked out of my memory, as those words – put together – tend to make me black out). These injuries are notoriously difficult to play sports with, and apparently quite difficult to overcome. In Haniger’s case, it required multiple surgeries, missing the rest of 2019 and all of 2020 (in spite of the fact that 2020’s season started late and only lasted 60 games).
Added to the “easy to overlook” factor in all of this is the excitement over our Rookie of the Year, Kyle Lewis, as well as hotshot prospects Julio Rodriguez and Jarred Kelenic (who are both poised to ascend to the Major Leagues either this season or next). You don’t even have to squint to envision an outfield of K-Lew, J-Rod, and J-Kel(?) in some order; if everything goes according to plan, that IS the future for the Mariners’ organization.
And yet, there’s real potential for a “motherfuckers act like they forgot about
Dre Mitch” situation here. As recently as 2018, Haniger was an All Star. He had a 6.2 WAR, with 26 homers and an OPS of .859. That was only his age 27 season; not only was he the “future” of the Mariners, he was the present and the FACE of the organization (especially with King Felix on his way out the following year). He’s 30 years old now, he’s completely healthy and recovered from all the medical shit, and apparently he is fucking jacked!
Obviously, the Mariners have him written down in pen as the Opening Day right fielder for 2021. If he returns to his 2018 level of production, he will easily be this team’s best player. He’s also in his second year of arbitration, with one more season of team control left.
So, what will happen with Mitch Haniger?
Well, there are options. We can let his deal play out, thank him for his time, and move on. In this scenario, that either means the Mariners are confident in the outfield I outlined above, or it means Haniger doesn’t return to his previous level of greatness (because of lack of production, or because he suffers another injury). If Haniger does manage to recapture that old magic, I don’t think this scenario is very likely, because how are you going to find opportunities for all three of those other outfielders to showcase their talents, when Haniger has a stranglehold on right field? And also, why would you let Haniger walk if he’s back to being great again?
Well, that leads me to another option: Mitch Haniger becomes this team’s regular DH. This also doesn’t seem very likely, because he’s too athletic to squander his talents just being a hitter. But, if he’s one of those injury-prone guys who can’t stay off the Injured List, that might ultimately be his destiny. Now, to get around the roster crunch, the Mariners could always rotate the outfielders, so everyone is getting a DH day throughout the week; that’s something I think they’ll do regardless, to try to keep everyone fresh. So, I’ll throw this idea on the Maybe Pile.
Another option is: the Mariners sign Haniger to an early extension. For this to become a reality, he would almost certainly have to get through 2021 completely unscathed from injury. That’s a tall order for literally any baseball player, but for someone as unlucky as him, it’s probably an impossibility. Nevertheless, if he’s once again a 6-WAR player, the M’s could always extend him – effectively buying out his 2022 arbitration year to get something of a discount – and then figure out the outfield crunch later. I’ll be honest, this is probably the least likely scenario of the bunch.
The option I’m most curious about is: the Mariners could trade Haniger. I highly doubt he will be traded during the season, but if he is, he would have to get off to an amazingly hot start. Right now, Mitch Haniger has almost no trade value. He’s only earning a little over $3 million, but for teams who don’t have access to his medicals – and who haven’t seen him play since 2019 – if you’re trading for Haniger, you’re trading for his potential. Is this recovery legit? Can he return to his 2018 production level? Teams don’t like to give up quality players or prospects for question marks; they want to know they’re getting someone who will help right away. In that case, it doesn’t make sense for the Mariners to trade him until he’s built up most of his previous value. He’ll never be as valuable as he was after the 2018 season – because at that time he had two more years of club control – but if he plays like an All Star in 2021, with another option year at a relatively reasonable price for 2022, that COULD be worth something to another team if we decide to trade him next offseason.
The only downside is, with one more year after this season on his contract, that’s still not enough value to get a top flight prospect. You’re probably only trading him to a team that’s already great and is near the luxury tax threshold (who also happens to need an outfielder). So, even this option isn’t the greatest for the Mariners; I wouldn’t go into any Haniger trade scenario very optimistic that we’re going to fleece some dimwitted general manager like we did in the Cano deal.
If I’m being realistic, my prediction is that Haniger returns this year and is just okay. I don’t necessarily believe he’ll suffer another devastating injury, but I could see him getting worn down by various bruises and strains, as all players must endure. I think the combination of the long gap in between playing the game of baseball, his tendency to press (to want to be great so badly that he tries to do too much at the plate), and some good old fashioned bad luck with BABIP will render his numbers relatively mediocre. I don’t believe even his best-case scenario will see him return to those 2018 heights; even if he’s good, though, I don’t think that will be enough to make him much of a trade candidate.
In that case, the Mariners might have their hand forced heading into the 2022 season. They might decide to trade him just to get SOME value out of him. Either that, or let him start the season in Seattle, in hopes that he’ll get off to a hot start and allow the organization to deal him at the deadline, to be some other contender’s rental for a few months.
I know we’re delving into a lot of hypotheticals here, but let’s say he’s just okay in 2021 and remains in Seattle in 2022; what happens if he IS great to start that season, but the Mariners themselves are also great and contending for the playoffs? Do we then let it ride with Haniger and see where he can lead us?
That’s kind of what I’m hoping for, among all the possibilities. I like Haniger! Shit, I bought his jersey after the 2018 season for Christ’s sake! I thought that was a safe choice, of someone who I believed would be a major part of this organization for many years to come. While I’m obviously seduced by an outfield of Lewis, Rodriguez, and Kelenic, I do hope there’s room for Haniger to stick around for another handful of seasons, because I believe he’s a real asset when he’s healthy.
But, that’s the key, isn’t it? That’s everything with him! I don’t know if he has what it takes to stay on the field consistently, and ultimately it’ll be his downfall with the Mariners’ organization if he’s not here beyond 2022.