Seattle Mariners

Why Mitch Haniger is the new face of the Mariners

Jerry Dipoto never says no to discussing a trade, but if there’s a player who comes close to being off Dipoto’s table, it’s Mitch Haniger right now.

“We’re not really listening to offers,” the Mariners’ general manager recently told MLB Network when asked about the potential of dealing their all-star outfielder. “They would have to blow us away, and they haven’t even come close.”

So for now Haniger is the Mariners’ future. He represents the foundation of their rebuild, all really thanks to his healthy 2018 season in which he ranked ninth among American League position players with 6.1 wins above replacement. The only other Mariners outfielders to have at least that in a season were Ken Griffey Jr., Ichiro Suzuki and Franklin Gutierrez.

So when Dipoto said after the season that he didn’t envision ripping the Mariners down to the studs in a teardown, he meant building around at least one stud in particular.

Haniger made it that much easier for the Mariners to ship off seemingly all of their 25-man roster, including ace James Paxton, closer Edwin Diaz, All-Stars Jean Segura and Nelson Cruz (free agent), as well as trading Robinson Cano, Mike Zunino, Alex Colome, Guillermo Heredia and Ben Gamel among others. Their plan is to “step back” in 2019, be competitive by 2020 and contend for a World Series by 2021.

“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.”

Here’s basically how they figure their timeline looks:

Haniger, who turned 28 on Sunday, will be 30 entering the 2021 season. He’ll make the league minimum again in 2019 and is under club control through 2023, as is left-hander Marco Gonzales and recently acquired outfielder Mallex Smith. So they should form the Mariners’ core.

The rest is based on Dipoto and Co.’s optimism about the young talent and prospects they’ve acquired, or will acquire, between now and then.

All signs say shortstop J.P. Crawford and pitchers Justus Sheffield and Erik Swanson will get every opportunity to contribute in 2019. If everything goes the Mariners’ way (and that’s a huge if), then in 2020 Justin Dunn, Evan White, Jake Fraley and a healthy Kyle Lewis become regular contributors. And in 2021 younger prospects such as Jarred Kelenic, Logan Gilbert, Julio Rodriguez and Cal Raleigh are in Seattle, with Josh Stowers, Braden Bishop and Dom Thompson-Williams mixed in there, as well.

Dipoto has repeatedly shared that most all these prospects should be contributing by midseason 2020. Combined with Haniger, Gonzales and Smith, the Mariners GM plans to be looking to “finish a team rather than build one,” Dipoto said.

It’s interesting to note that Haniger and Segura are roughly the same age, but Segura was traded to the Phillies and Haniger has stayed. Dipoto’s explanation was that they had to have viewed Segura as part of their next core to keep him and they simply didn’t.

They do with Haniger. They expect his production can get better, but even if he doesn’t they will gladly take what he did in 2018: .285/.366/.493 with 38 doubles, 26 homers and 93 RBI in 157 games. Plus, he provides value in his preparation and they hope it can rub off on their incoming prospects.

“From a coaching standpoint, you want to know what you are getting,” manager Scott Servais said just before the end of the season. “Not how many hits they are going to get or how many strikeouts, but what kind of effort are they going to bring? Are they going to come prepared?

“And with that – check all the boxes with Mitch Haniger. You never have to worry about him.”

So much so that Servais said Haniger can be a bit obsessive compulsive about it, which is why he thought Haniger’s trip to Japan in November as part of an All-Star tour would be huge for him. The Mariners open the season in Japan against the Athletics on March 20.

“He’ll know where to eat, what to eat, how the time zone affects his body, and that’s a good thing for him just because he’s so dialed in,” Servais said.

Servais was then jokingly asked if he’s ever seen Haniger smile. Haniger’s so fixed into his routine and approach that it can seem like he is some sort of baseball robot.

“He reminds me of somebody else I know out there,” Servais answered with a laugh before pausing. “How many times have you seen me smile? That was actually one of my goals this year is can I smile more on the field a little bit? I actually said that to somebody.

“But Mitch, he is very serious. You’ve heard it from me a million times and I’ll say it again – be who you are. We have to be OK with that. Mitch, that’s who he is and I don’t want him to change. As a player I was very serious and that’s just how I was wired. People would say the same thing about me – you never smile. Trust me, I’m having fun. I love the game. I love doing what I’m doing, but that’s just my natural state and it’s OK.”

Haniger, as much as any Mariner other than Nelson Cruz, was hard to find before games because of his pregame routine. He said he’ll get to the ballpark by 1 p.m. for a 7 p.m. game, work out, hit the training room, hit in the batting cage, study the starting pitcher, grab some food and get to batting practice. Then it’s tune-out time after that.

“I start getting ready real early compared to most people because I want to start focusing on the game and blocking everything out,” Haniger said. “I put my headphones on and just get mentally ready.”

That’s how he’s always been wired, he said, dating back to Archbishop Mitty High School in San Jose, California, and Cal Poly. But he’s become smarter with his routine over time.

“I’ve always been someone who wanted to put in the work and do that every day,” Haniger said. “But I’ve also been able to watch guys who are really good, guys like Ichiro and Nelson and Robinson Cano and how they go about their business and I try to pick up on things. And I read a lot of stuff about good players and I try to study people who have had success, whether they are an athlete or in business or wherever.”

That’s why Haniger said he didn’t feel an injection of extra confidence when the Mariners unconventionally moved him to the leadoff role in early August so they could get him the most at-bats possible. Same for when the Brewers drafted him in the first round in 2012. His confidence comes himself, from his own drive and preparation.

And that’s probably why Haniger becoming the face of the Mariners going forward won’t change him, either.

“I mean, I don’t really look for outside confirmation for confidence,” Haniger said. “That’s something I pride myself on having, and that’s through my work ethic and stuff like that. Whether someone believes in me or not, I don’t really care, to be honest with you.

“It’s nice. It’s great to have them believe in me. I feel blessed. But at the end of the day your confidence has to come from yourself. So I don’t really care where they hit me in the lineup, I don’t care where they put me in the outfield. I just want to be in the lineup.”

And barring Dipoto being blown away by a trade offer, he’ll be in the Mariners’ lineup plenty.

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TJ Cotterill is the Seattle Mariners and MLB writer for The News Tribune. He started covering MLB full-time in 2018, but before that covered Ken Griffey Jr.’s Hall of Fame induction in Cooperstown, the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay and spent seven years writing about high schools, including four as TNT’s prep sports coordinator. Born and raised in Washington.
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