The moment above, on the afternoon of June 13th, was the zenith of the 2018 Mariners season. It felt like a high mark at the time, but even the most curmudgeonly didn’t anticipate the A’s ascent would coincide with Seattle’s downturn. In that moment, however, it was hard not to feel elation.
If the Mariners have delivered joy in the past two years, there’s been a good chance Mitch Haniger has been involved. He’s led the team in position player fWAR since his arrival in 2017, and having freshly turned 28 he looks primed to do so once again in 2019.
But what Haniger produces in 2019 is far less important than the fact that he will be producing it for the Mariners. Despite their assurances that Edwin Diaz, Marco Gonzales, and Haniger would be building blocks of whatever schemes Stepback J drew up, Edwin was dealt to the Mets, Paxton went to the Yankees, and Mitchell remains. Haniger has been described not only as a core piece, but a role model:
“He represents everything we want to build around and be about as a team,” Dipoto said of Haniger. “Not to put any more pressure on him, but if Mitch Haniger is no better than he was in 2018, we think that’s a terrific player who fits us perfectly.”
Assurances of no pressure aside, Dipoto is stating an unsurprising sentiment that has been backed up by each of his moves this offseason: he hopes Haniger will be the ur-Mariner of the core on which he’s staking the next half-decade or more. It’s a worthy aspiration, even as it is aided by the fact that Mitch is the hitter who will be paid the least over the next four years compared to the other stars dealt this offseason. A team pointing to Haniger as their lodestar, nonetheless, has chosen well for an inspirational guide.
If you’re unfamiliar with the story, you can have the long version, or the short one: Taken in the 1st round of the 2012 draft, Haniger rose slowly over three years before being traded from the Brewers to the Diamondbacks, subsequently hitting a wall in AA. Frustrated with a lack of power, Haniger followed the advice of teammates A.J. Pollock and Jake Lamb and took it upon himself to seek out coaching to refine his swing. He requested a demotion to High-A to receive more playing time in 2015. There, as a 23-year-old, he would obliterate inferior pitching, earning his way back up to AA, and, by 2016, AAA and the Majors. You know the story from there, as do opposing pitchers, All-Star voters, and incautious baserunners.
That mold, of talented tinkerers motivated to make up for lost time, has been the target for Seattle all offseason. Outfielders Jake Fraley and Dom Thompson-Williams are the most on-the-nose examples, each arriving fresh off dominant 2018 campaigns at age-23 in High-A following swing changes. But that is also the vision they likely have for embattled once-top-prospect J.P. Crawford. Even Mallex Smith has (optimistically) mentioned a desire to learn from Haniger about his offensive approach. The Mariners have built a lineup that will have a minimum of eight players in it on any given day who are coming into 2019 with something to prove. From a pedagogical standpoint, there is value for the coaching staff to be able to point to their remaining star and say “he was once just like you, and if he could do it, we believe you can too.”