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Mariners Exit Interviews 2019: the injured outfield

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Mitch Haniger, Domingo Santana, and Braden Bishop all ailed at various points in the season

MLB: Spring Training-Seattle Mariners at Yomiuri Giants
the lone picture of all of these fellows while healthy
Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

As part of the rebuild, the Mariners re-made their farm system last season, rocketing from dead last to top ten-adjacent. While the system is still thin, one area of depth is in the outfield, so much so that the Mariners were able to deal 2018 second-rounder CF Josh Stowers to the Yankees in exchange for Professional Fireplug Shed Long. Even with the departure of Stowers, many intriguing outfield prospects continue to dot the system, from the MLB-experienced Kyle Lewis and Jake Fraley, who received a cup of coffee this season before a thumb injury derailed the rest of his season; to the highly-touted duo of Jarred Kelenic and Julio Rodríguez, rising quickly through the system; to mid-tier prospects Dom Thompson-Williams and Luis Liberato; to DSL standouts Gunn Omosako, Arturo Guerrero, and weight-room warrior Jonatan Clase, all expected to make their stateside debuts this year. Outfield is such a rich position in the Mariners’ system it’s easy to forget that three of their central pieces in the outfield this season spent between a month and the better part of the year on the IL, with Mitch Haniger, Domingo Santana, and Braden Bishop spending a combined 230+ days on the IL this season.

The first member of this trio to go down was Mitch Haniger, who went on the IL on June 5 with a ruptured testicle, a nightmare injury for Haniger both from a medical standpoint and for the multiple terrible jokes levied at the expense of Seattle’s famously buttoned-up outfielder. Poor Mitch. Before Haniger was incapacitated, he was well on his way to taking advantage of the juiced ball, racking up a career-high ISO of .244, with 15 HR—over half of his total from last year—notched in just 283 PAs. That amped-up power came with an alarming rise in strikeouts, though, with Haniger striking out close to 30% of the time after consistently posting strong K-BB numbers throughout his career.

Despite a few false starts, Haniger wasn’t able to return to play after his injury in 2019, so we don’t have a complete picture of how the analytically-minded Haniger might adjust his game to the new ball, if it returns in 2020. Nevertheless, Haniger is one year removed from a five-win season and isn’t eligible for arbitration until 2021, making him the most appealing of Seattle’s off-season trade chips, although they would be selling Mariana Trench-levels of low on him. Our consensus is that unless Dipoto is presented with an irresistible deal (and please, other teams, make Dipoto an irresistible deal), Haniger will remain a Mariner for the foreseeable future, despite the spate of weird, unrelated injuries that have hampered him early in his career (also, cc John Stanton and co, I happen to know a very powerful witch who is skilled at protection spells against freak injuries and it’s me, the witch is me, available on retainer).

There are two kind-of-lies in this article, and the first is that Haniger was the first to go on the IL; he and Bishop were actually both back-dated to the same day, although Haniger’s injury occurred in a game on June 6, and Bishop’s injury occurred earlier, while he was still in the minors and was struck by an errant pitch which ruptured his spleen, only detected by doctors days after the fact, after Bishop complained of pain while attempting to go through routine outfield drills.

The second kind-of lie is calling Bishop a “central” piece of the outfield; offensively Bishop wasn’t able to produce a lot in his first year in the majors, but he is easily the most defensively gifted of Seattle’s outfielders, a true center fielder with plus-plus speed, range, and instincts that help him make heart-stopping plays in the outfield. Bishop also plays with a fearlessness in the outfield that has unfortunately wound up in him sustaining some wall-crashing injuries in the past; he’s also lost significant time after being hit by pitches: the one that cut short his MLB debut in 2019 and one in the Texas League in 2018 that fractured his ulna and dashed any hopes of a potential big-league callup. Bishop doesn’t have trade value other than his defense at this point but should hopefully see more reps in 2020 with a rebuilding club that could benefit from his premium defense, provided he can stay healthy.

Unlike Haniger and Bishop, Domingo Santana basically had a full season until he was shut down late in the year with inflammation in his right elbow. My dad’s favorite joke about a pitcher put on the IL who’s been performing poorly is he was sent to the IL with a “badly strained ERA”, and while I’ve heard that too many times for it to register as funny anymore, it does seem like there should be a hitter’s correlation to the joke for Santana, who had a wRC+ of 127 in the first half and just 31 in the second half. A steeply inclined strikeout rate is part of the issue for Santana, who has always been a high-strikeout player, even as he maintained strong walk rates all season. Perhaps the elbow injury explains Santana’s precipitous drop in isolated power—a loss of around 100 points from June to July.

Santana is one of the more divisive players among the LL staff: some of us (Kate) are frustrated by Santana’s inconsistencies at the dish, even when he’s going well, along with his subpar defense, and are anxious to see him traded this off-season, regardless of value; others (John, among others) are intrigued by his tremendous power and hope to see him blossom into the All-Star-caliber player that lurks within his bat. If Santana is still a Mariner headed into 2020, he’ll be one of the players we’re watching most closely to see if it was the elbow suppressing his power in the second half, or if he’s able to make other improvements at the dish, or if he carries his poor finish over into 2020.

Ironically, despite a farm system rich in outfield talent, the Mariners played 2019 shorthanded in the outfield thanks to injuries to some key players; Haniger, Bishop, and Santana all spent time on the IL, but regular centerfielder Mallex Smith also missed time, as did late-season callup Jake Fraley. Tim Lopes and Dylan Moore, both career infielders, played over a combined 500 innings in the outfield in 2019. Assuming no one from the outfield gets traded this off-season and everyone returns healthy, the Mariners will find themselves with the opposite problem in 2020, with a wealth of outfielders for a limited number of spots. Likely we will see movement from this position group during the Hot Stove season, but thanks to the injuries that befell this group in particular along with flexibility in minor-league options (Fraley, Bishop, Lopes, Moore, Lewis, Smith, and even Haniger all have MiLB options left; only Santana doesn’t), the Mariners could play fast and loose with their crop of talented young outfielders in 2020; at least until the trade deadline.