ARLINGTON -- As the Mariners play out the final days of the regular season, there are still lessons to be learned as the club goes into the offseason. One thing that seems to be clearer and clearer, they appear to have discovered a potent leadoff hitter in Mitch Haniger.The 27-year-outfielder
ARLINGTON -- As the Mariners play out the final days of the regular season, there are still lessons to be learned as the club goes into the offseason. One thing that seems to be clearer and clearer, they appear to have discovered a potent leadoff hitter in Mitch Haniger.
The 27-year-outfielder blossomed into an American League All-Star outfielder this season in his second full year in the Majors. But he has taken his game to another gear in the last six weeks since being shifted to the top of the batting order.
While Haniger has the ability to hit anywhere in the lineup -- he batted third in 60 games this year and even filled in at cleanup for 10 games in one stretch -- manager Scott Servais said prior to Friday's series opener against the Rangers that batting leadoff seems to have helped Haniger in other aspects of his game as well.
"Mitch in the leadoff spot has been a little more aggressive player in the outfield and on the bases than maybe he was when he was hitting down in the lineup, for whatever reason," Servais said. "I think his outfield play has been much better in the second half. He was good in the outfield, don't get me wrong, but I think it's been really at a high level.
"I think [playing some] center field has helped that, too," said Servais. "In center, you tend to take control and take charge a little more. And in right field, there have been a number of really nice plays this year. Certainly in the second half, he seems more aggressive out there."
Haniger has hit .333 (52-for-156) in 37 games in the leadoff role, with 15 doubles, two triples, eight homers, 18 RBIs and 28 runs. While not the base stealing threat of Dee Gordon, Haniger's season on-base average of .366 is well above Gordon's current .287.
"He does it a little differently," Servais said. "More the George Springer/Mookie Betts type where there's real pop at the top of the lineup, which isn't your traditional leadoff guy. I like having him there and it's been really good for our offense. The consistency he's had, just on his approach, has been really good from that spot."
Defensively, Haniger is tied for the Major League lead with 12 outfield assists and has made some outstanding catches. He's started 124 games in right field and 22 in center. The offseason plan won't be discussed yet, but Servais indicated his personal preference is to keep Haniger in the corner spot.
"I like him in right, in a perfect world," Servais said. "The wear and tear in center, there's a lot more going on out there. He's certainly done a really good job in center. Could he run out there for 100-110 games in center? He probably could and do just fine. It just looks and plays and feels more natural [in right field]."
Paxton could get two more starts
James Paxton threw a bullpen session prior to Friday's game and if he shows no lingering issues from last week's bout with pneumonia, will return to the rotation either Monday or Tuesday against the A's and could start twice in the final seven-game homestand.
Felix Hernandez, who has been sidelined since Sept. 8 with a tight right hamstring, rejoined the team in Texas and played flat-ground catch on Friday. He'll throw a bullpen on Saturday to see if he's OK to get one final start this season later next week.
While the Mariners want Paxton to get the final starts to increase his innings workload and progress closer to the preferred 180-200 range for next year, the veteran Hernandez has no need to build or prove his durability.
"He's had a lot of innings, no doubt," Servais said. "I think he just wants to feel healthy and feel good about going into the next year. One more outing, a productive outing, would be good to see. He wants to pitch again, no question about it. That's why he's here. If that wasn't the case, he'd probably shut it down. But he wants to get back out there."
Greg Johns has covered the Mariners since 1997, and for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB.