For the past year or so, the Seattle Mariners have had to maintain a tricky balance. Mitch Haniger was their most established offensive player in 2021, slugging 39 home runs after missing all of the brief 2020 season and much of 2019 with catastrophic freak injury. In 2018, of course, he was the club’s breakout stud, an All-Star whose signature moment on the season was a spectacular game culminating in a walk-off bomb over the Angels.
Last year, in Game 161, he of course got Anaheim again, keeping Seattle’s playoff hopes alive, in a lineup far less deep as the one he finds himself amidst this season.
Prior to 2022, where there has been hope in the land of Mariners baseball in the past few years, Mitch Haniger has by and large been in the thick of things, first as an understudy performer alongside Robinson Canó, Nelson Cruz, and Félix Hernández, then as the de facto veteran presence on last year’s club beyond Kyle Seager. Teams aren’t keen to pay for past performance, however, and want to invest in future production. Per Ryan Divish, at least as of early this spring, the club had not supposedly approached Haniger about a contract extension ahead of 2022.
Coming into 2022, it seemed like Haniger might be the odd man out at the season’s end, with free agency looming at the end of the year and Seattle shaping up for an outfield group of Julio Rodríguez, Jesse Winker, Kyle Lewis, Jarred Kelenic, and even Taylor Trammell. Haniger is limited to corner outfield at this point, with a cannon of an arm but middling range, and his compendium of fluky but undeniable injuries make for a tricky projection on the 31-year-old outfielder. Given Winker’s track record, Lewis’ production when healthy, the ascendent possible stardom of Rodríguez, the strong finish to 2021 of Kelenic, and Trammell’s versatility and youth. It made sense to think Haniger’s fit on a roster that did not necessarily feature extra DH reps would be limited. And yet...
As we cruise through mid-August, despite a high ankle sprain that held him out for some time, Haniger’s overall ability to produce seems likelier than several of his younger counterparts. Julio has delivered and then some, and despite inconsistency Winker has rounded into form, at the plate if nothing else. Unfortunately, Kelenic is back in the Triple-A kitchen for seasoning, while Lewis is rusty at best and at risk of lacking a big league future due to chronic health issues at worst. For as much as has gone well for Seattle - see, Haggerty, Sam - the club needs as many bites at the apple of stable, high-quality production as possible, and while an extension may have been tougher to envision preseason, it has grown to make sense for both sides.
For Haniger, who will be 32 before the calendar turns to 2023, it’s a chance to lock in guaranteed cash in a familiar and friendly environment. The West Coast kid has a home in the city and has both cache in the clubhouse as well as connection as a fan favorite. More importantly in all likelihood, Seattle has a spot to play him and the cash to fit him into their plans. Though Haniger can rightfully point to each of his major injuries being fairly unlikely to repeat - 97 mph to the head and another later fastball to the wrist, foul ball to the crotch, sprained ankle rolled seemingly while swinging - a 32-year-old righty hitter with defensive limitations, declining foot speed, and a lot of gaps in time played is not the type of player who will be getting a massive contract in free agency.
A deal like what OF David Peralta received from the Arizona Diamondbacks at the same age and after similarly high level rate production when healthy could be a framework: three years, $22 million. As that was signed after the 2019 campaign, it could look a bit more expensive, maybe in the $25-28 million range, but it’s likely enough Seattle wouldn’t regret any deal that paid Haniger millions in the single digits per season. It’s possible that even is higher than it might take, as the going rate for corner outfield sluggers over the age of 31 with defensive limitations has simply not impressed in free agency in recent years. Tommy Pham, Adam Duvall, Adam Eaton, Robbie Grossman, Kole Calhoun, Cameron Maybin, and Eric Thames are a few examples from the past few offseasons of solid performers who only recouped nine figure AAV deals.
It’s possible someone takes him as this winter’s Jorge Soler or Michael Brantley, but even somewhat proven sluggers like Joc Pederson, Eddie Rosario, Kyle Schwarber, and Andrew McCutchen have had to settle for smaller paydays. Haniger lacks the ability to cover three positions like Mark Canha, Avisaíl Garcia, and Starling Marte, as well as the more robust health and production track records of Nick Castellanos, George Springer, or Marcell Ozuna, and the youth and peak past production of Kris Bryant. The market should exist for Haniger, but it should be one Seattle convinces him not to test.
With Haniger in the fold for at least one or two more seasons, Seattle can afford its young outfielders further time to hopefully progress into full-time roles. While this is frustrating, it is also notably the type of thing that organizations with quality depth are able to do. The stellar play of 24-year-old Gavin Lux for the Dodgers was preceded by disappointing stretches in parts of three seasons prior, such that L.A. traded for Trea Turner and retained Chris Taylor to theoretically block the young former top prospect from playing time. In reality, Lux has been able to play himself into consistent reps, and his breakout is part of what’s kept the most dominant regular season team of the last decade cruising into another staggering season. Do not fret the logjam, friends. Bring Mitch back, let the rest sort itself out.