SAN DIEGO — The Mariners’ most coveted player last offseason remains one of their most coveted this offseason, despite an interrupted season in which he missed the last 99 games due to injury.
General manager Jerry Dipoto still receives constant calls inquiring on the availability of outfielder Mitch Haniger via trade.
“Oh yeah, we get hit on Mitch constantly,” Dipoto said. “This offseason, our heaviest hit-up on players were our catchers and Mitch. And less so than any other year, we haven’t been hit up on our young players, so our messaging must be good.”
One of the teams very interested in Haniger is the team that traded him to the Mariners on that Thanksgiving eve back in 2016.
Per a report from the Arizona Republic’s Nick Piecoro, the Arizona Diamondbacks need a productive, controllable corner outfielder and are interested in bringing Haniger back after sending him, Jean Segura and left-handed pitcher Zac Curtis to the Mariners in exchange for Ketel Marte and Taijuan Walker. The Diamondbacks were also interested in Rangers outfielder Nomar Mazara. But Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News reported late Tuesday evening that Mazara was being traded to the White Sox.
However, according to Piecoro, D-backs general manager Mike Hazen is also hesitant to move some of his team’s top prospects, including catcher Daulton Varsho, shortstop Geraldo Perdomo and outfielder and former Lakeside standout Corbin Carroll. They’d prefer to go with prospects from the next-lowest tier. That might not get it done for Haniger.
“We’re always open to seeing new things,” Dipoto said. “But we still go into 2020 believing that Mitch is our best player. What we saw 2017 and 2018, it wasn’t a mirage. Mitch is a really good player. He’s still in his 20s. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t see him bounce back to that level of play.”
Haniger has no current issues from his 2019 injuries.
“From the perspective of our trainers, the doctors and the people Mitch trains with in the offseason, Sparta Science, and including Mitch, he is full go,” Dipoto said. “He’s a full go on full-speed sprints, full workouts and I know he started his baseball activity, which is on his normal timeline. All is good.”
A year ago, Dipoto was flooded with calls on Haniger, who was coming off an All-Star 2018 season where he slashed .285/.366/.493 with 38 doubles, four triples, 26 homers and 93 RBI in 157 games.
Given the amount of club control at the time — one year at the minimum and three of arbitration — Haniger was attractive to an assortment of teams. With the organization just starting its “step-back” rebuild, Dipoto viewed Haniger as a foundational-level player to build around along with pitcher Marco Gonzales. The public plan was to keep Haniger, but Dipoto also listened to every offer while making it clear that the return would need to be high. The Braves were the most serious of the interested teams but refused to meet those expectations.
Haniger wasn’t quite on pace to replicate those gaudy numbers in 2019 when a wayward foul ball off his own swing ruptured his testicle and sent him the injured list on June 7. The awful injury required immediate surgery. Attempts to return during the season were hindered by setbacks. He didn’t play again. His final numbers: 220/.313/.463 line with 13 doubles, a triple, 15 homers and 32 RBI.
“For the first five weeks of the season, he was as hot as it gets,” Dipoto said. “But he got in a slump and had season-ending injury. He had four or five excellent weeks and three or four weeks where he was in the slump and when you are that early in the season, it tends to make your numbers look upside down. But he was still on pace for a 3 1/2 – to 4-win season (in WAR).”
What makes this offseason somewhat different for Dipoto in measuring Haniger’s value to the organization is the development of the Mariners’ farm system.
Some of the Seattle’s top prospects like Jarred Kelenic, Julio Rodriguez and Kyle Lewis are all outfielders. Lewis is expected to be Seattle’s starting left fielder on opening day while Kelenic, rated No. 1 in the organization by MLB Pipeline, could make his debut by the end of the 2020 season. Rodriguez, who is just 19 and rated No. 2, is probably a year behind Kelenic.
“The progress we have seen from your young outfielders certainly lends it now to being an area where we have to be open to whatever opportunity may come our way,” Dipoto said. “Because if the players continue to develop at the pace they are developing, now we have decisions to make. But that decision doesn’t have to be made today.”
As of today, Haniger is their starting right fielder.
“Still believe Mitch is a foundational-level piece, still believe he is an all-star-level player and absolutely believe that on opening day he will be out there 100 percent healthy and we’ll see it,” Dipoto said.
But if teams call, Dipoto will always listen. It’s due diligence. The fear from fans is that Haniger’s value is at an all-time low because of the injury and shortened season. And by trading him in the offseason, it wouldn’t yield a commensurate return.
That’s not necessarily correct.
From all indications and chatter from baseball sources, Dipoto still wants maximum return in any trade involving Haniger. The belief is that Haniger’s numbers in 2017 and 2018 are the measure of him as a player, not 2019. Realistically, Haniger’s value did take a minor hit compared to last season because a current suitor would lose a year of club control at the minimum. Haniger is in his first year of arbitration eligibility and is projected to make close to $3 million, which still is a massive underpay. Removing Mazara out of contention only helps the Mariners to remain steadfast in their demands.
The Mariners aren’t in a position to where they want or need to trade Haniger in the near future. They can still expect/demand a high return similar to what they were asking a year ago. Just because teams want to buy low on Haniger, it doesn’t mean the Mariners have to sell low. They have the leverage in that moving Haniger is not a priority. And if he starts the season with Seattle, remains healthy and produces at a 2018 pace, well, Dipoto could possibly ask for even more.