Where does Haniger fit in the Mariners' future?

November 22nd, 2019

SEATTLE -- Something has happened this winter with Jerry Dipoto. Or more to the point, not much has happened yet on the trade and free-agent fronts with the normally ultra-active Mariners general manager.

By this time last year, Dipoto had already pulled the trigger on two of his nine offseason trades, dealing Mike Zunino and Guillermo Heredia to the Rays and James Paxton to the Yankees to bring back Mallex Smith and four prospects, while also signing free agents Dylan Moore and R.J. Alaniz.

Before the end of November, there’d been two more trades. The pace never slowed that winter for the busiest general manager in MLB.

But Dipoto vowed to turn down the Hot Stove this offseason, given the plan now is for the club to allow its young prospects to mature and show what they can do. That statement was met by upraised eyebrows from many and, indeed, even Dipoto acknowledges it’s not easy for him to slow the roster churn that has been his trademark since arriving in Seattle four years ago.

“I've joked with a couple of my brethren as they've asked me, ‘What are you going to do in the offseason?’” Dipoto told reporters at the General Managers Meetings last week in Scottsdale, Ariz. “I said, ‘Probably just go off to a desert island and chain myself to a palm tree so I don't do anything crazy.’”

That doesn’t mean Dipoto won’t do anything, however. And one looming question now, as the Mariners and the other 29 MLB teams head toward next month’s Winter Meetings, is whether it would be crazy to trade or keep the 28-year-old as part of the club’s rebuilding nucleus.

Dipoto chose to hang on to Haniger last winter because he felt he and pitcher Marco Gonzales were exactly the kind of players the Mariners wanted at the heart of their plans going forward. Haniger was coming off a 2018 All-Star campaign and had four seasons of team control remaining before hitting free agency.

But in 2019, Haniger got sidetracked by a ruptured testicle and, later, a related back issue that wiped out his final four months. And while Haniger was sidelined, Seattle’s young outfield prospect group continued progressing, with Kyle Lewis and Jake Fraley making their MLB debuts and Jarred Kelenic and Julio Rodriguez impressing and advancing in the Minors.

So the case can be made that Haniger could or should be traded now while he still has three years of team control -- and plenty of value to whoever acquires him -- and thus open the path for those youngsters to continue advancing.

The counter is that Haniger’s value was lowered by last year’s injury, so it might make more sense to let him return and reestablish himself. And while Lewis shined as a September callup, Fraley struggled before being sidelined by a sprained thumb, while Kelenic and Rodriguez aren’t Major League ready.

At this point, it’s more likely the Mariners trade Domingo Santana, who missed much of the final two months himself with a right elbow issue. Dipoto says the plan currently has Haniger opening next season in right field.

“We'll start in all likelihood with Mitch Haniger in right, Mallex Smith in center and Kyle Lewis in left,” Dipoto said. “From there, we're just going to see where it takes us. We've got a group of young outfielders coming. Guys like Jarred Kelenic and Julio Rodriguez are probably the most famous. But there are others we feel can contribute this year. And we have to figure out between now and Opening Day where Domingo Santana fits in, and some of that is going to be relative to his health, frankly.”

As for Haniger’s health? That also will be a factor, but Dipoto indicated things are looking better there.

“First, here's a really good player,” Dipoto said. “He had an unfortunate injury that we had to be really patient with rehabbing, having never done anything like that before. But he projects as fully healthy. He looks great now.”

From the Mariners’ perspective, Haniger remains a valuable veteran anchor for a young roster.

“He embodies almost everything about what we stand for and what we're trying to set up in our systems and our programs,” said Dipoto. “He's a very well-rounded player. He believes in technology. He believes in scouting and preparation. He's a leader in our clubhouse despite the fact he's [only] got three years of Major League service and has been since he was a zero-plus [service time] because of how he's wired. We look forward to having him back.”

Dipoto likes the fact Haniger can also play center field if needed and provides a versatile bat who can hit anywhere from 2-4 in the order.

“Where the future takes us, especially with developing young outfielders, it just remains to be seen,” he said. “But our young players will have to do a lot to put themselves on the tier that Mitch Haniger has already achieved. And he's still just 28 years old.”