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40 in 25: Mitch Haniger

The last man standing is surviving the times.

Texas Rangers v Seattle Mariners Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

Most of the music I listen to is geared towards an ambient warmth. The auditory equivalent of a mug of hot cocoa on a frosty day goes down real smooth into my eardrums. There are times and places for energizing music, of course, and I relish quite a variety, but the truth is most of the time when I hear a song, I am drawn to the comfort of a soothing melody, perhaps something lilting and hopeful, proud, satisfied. In writing this piece, I was drawn to just such a song, in this case 2007’s “Surviving The Times” by Nas. The song (which has its magnificent background music sampled from the tune “If I Could Feel”, performed by Nipsey Russell’s Tin Man in 1978’s “The Wiz”) is a rose-colored, or at least sepia-tinted, reflection on the legendary rapper’s youth and early career, as well as the now-older Nas chuckling at what his younger self considered unfathomable, now that he’s reached the pinnacle of his profession. The musical-based song Nas samples is similarly affecting, albeit even more apt for the man of the moment.

But that’s the whole, tragic, point my friends!
What would I do if I could suddenly feel
And to know once again that what I feel is real?
I could cry, I could smile
I might lay back for a while
Tell me what, what, what would I do if I could feel?

There were plenty of moments where it was reasonable to expect little or less to come from Mitch Haniger, and certainly not that he would become an All-Star, a comeback player of the year finalist, a leader on the winningest Seattle Mariners club in almost 20 years. He could have seen his career cut short in any of his first five professional seasons, where injuries, a trade, and underperformance forced the former 38th overall pick by the Milwaukee Brewers to request his own demotion to so that he might get consistent playing time and implement adjustments to his swing. Just as he hit his stride, obliterating Triple-A and earning his big league debut, he was dealt again, the Hanigura trade landing him in Seattle.

What would I do if I could reach inside of me
And to know how it feels to say I like what I see?

The road blocks didn’t stop once he hit the western end point of I-90, of course. His 2017 season was exhilarating, a healthy Haniger seemed at last another star to slot into a lineup with Robinson Canó, Nelson Cruz, and Kyle Seager. When healthy, he was just that. But “when healthy” was the issue for the 2017 Mariners, as it has been for Haniger. He missed time and saw his power sapped for stretches with an oblique injury in that season, as well as multiple hit by pitches including a Noah Syndergaard fastball to the face.

Then I’d be more than glad to share all that I have inside of here
And the songs my heart might bring, you’d be more than glad to sing

Yet Haniger returned with a vengeance in 2018, posting 157 games and 683 plate appearances for a 137 wRC+, 4.5 fWAR, and a .285/.366/.493 line. Delectable, and worthy of the All-Star nod he received alongside his #SendSegura trade partner. The 2018 Mariners faded infamously, but Haniger pounded the piton into the season’s high point.

And if tears should fall from my eyes
Just think of all the wounds they could mend

Then came 2019, and the descent into the deepest valley. In a game I attended, Haniger fouled a ball into himself, setting off a chain of injuries that cost him over half of 2019 and all of 2020. There were many times last winter wherein there could simply be no planning for the Seattle Mariners future or present that involved Mitch Haniger. To do so was foolhardy, a complete unknown. At times, no doubt, this weighed on the mind of Haniger himself. The kid whose teammates termed their “Champion” watched the club’s new core develop around him while he was largely waylaid. Despite being their de facto best player, in absentia he could not defend his title, nor aid his teammates in the COVID-shortened 2020 campaign. Even in 2021, it was unclear at best as to whether he could carry the weight of a full season’s workload.

For all our worrying, Haniger went out and played 157 games, hit 39 home runs, and almost singlehandedly kickstarted the Oakland Athletics rebuild with his September tear through their pitching staff. He was not quite his 2018 self, but a stellar hitter there was no doubt, aided with ample DH opportunities. Like late career Kyle Seager, Haniger remade himself physically, attempting to strengthen his entire body and both fend off injury and fatigue. Another year removed from surgery, Haniger will be 31 in 2022, battling the realities of biology while also gaining the benefits of a full winter of training and not simply recovering. Can he improve defensively while maintaining or taking further strides at the plate as he has multiple times already? Normal questions for a relatively normal player at last.

And just think of all the time I could spend
Just being vulnerable again

The trade that brought Haniger here ultimately led to the arrival of his fellow clubhouse leader, J.P. Crawford. In the vacuum left by Seager’s departure, the M’s have a young, somewhat atypical leadership group. but among position players, they are the returning head honchos. Five and a half years from Haniger’s draft day, he was a rookie amidst Hall of Fame caliber players and established stars. Five and a half years later, he is now the established star the young Mariners must turn to. In moments of need, it was Haniger who met the moment, again and again last year. Despite ranking 67th in fWAR among position players (a respectable position), he came in 19th in Win Probability Added, a level on par with some of the stars of the sport. When the Mariners needed a run most, Haniger came through.

His future is unclear, with free agency looming and Seattle’s outfield prospects their clear organizational strength. Those are worthy questions, and uncomfortable ones in all sincerity. But for now, the known is a delight: this is Mitch Haniger, one of the Mariners most recognizable faces. In October of last year, just after the season’s invigorating but untimely conclusion, Haniger penned a letter to Mariners fans. It was everything you could ask for from a leader of a pro sports team in the modern day. Self-aware, excited, insightful, disappointed, resolute, and calling out the two perennial elephants in the room: Mariners ownership’s need to commit to the club, and the cognizance of the players in Seattle’s locker room of the most important thing to most fans in the Pacific Northwest: “We’re going to end this f*cking drought.” Healthy and performing once again, he has reached his pinnacle, fallen, and clawed his way back to the peak. Play on, Mitch.

Oh, tell me what, what would I do
Oh, tell me what, what would I do
Oh, tell me what, what would I do if I could feel