OF Mitch Haniger has had a brutal off-season that included three surgeries. He’s back at Mariners camp determined to return to full health and help lead baseball’s youngest outfit.
Mitch Haniger was the Mariners’ best player in 2018, batting .285 with 26 home runs, 93 RBIs, playing very good defense in the outfield, making the All-Star team and earning some MVP votes. His play helped them to an 89-73 record, their best since 2003.
Haniger also has been an influence in the clubhouse.
As former Mariners shortstop Tim Beckham told me once: “He has a huge impact. He carries himself like a leader. And he is. He’s the guy we look up to. He’s our guy. A great ballplayer. And a better person.’’
He was so popular with fans that last season the Mariners gave out Haniger T-shirts during the opening homestand and then a couple of bobblehead pomotions, including one called the “Five-Tool’’ in which he holds a bat and wears a belt with tools around his waist.
Haniger was injured June 6 when he ruptured a testicle on a pitch that fouled off his bat and then hit his groin. He was out the rest of the season as the Mariners continued to get worse.
He was feeling better this winter and working out, but then said he woke up with a ton of pain one day in January and was unable to walk. He’s had back and core muscle pain and also undergone three surgeries. The first was last summer, then in January for an adductor-muscle issue and finally about a week ago, a discectomy surgery for a herniated disc.
Obviously, Haniger won’t play early this season, yet he says he will be fine and able to play this year.
“There was a lot of bad news the last three or four weeks,’’ he told reporters after arriving at spring training Wednesday in Peoria. “I choose to look at it in a positive manner as far as knowing that everything is fixed. I’m already having a lot of relief and I know that I will be able to get back here and be even better . . .
“I’m feeling good right now. A lot less pain, which is great. I’m excited to be in camp with the guys and be around everybody, and hopefully contribute to the team as much as I can this time when I’m not going to be on the field.’’
Manager Scott Servais has said that Haniger means a lot to the team, that he is a consistent guy, a better hitter and a “grinder.’’ He also says he is a leader. Players have praised him as well.
“He definitely does it the right way and I respect what he does,’’ infielder Dylan Moore told me. “If you have any questions at all, he’s always available.’’
Haniger was a first-round draft pick out of Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo by the Milwaukee Brewers in 2012, then traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2014 and played 34 games with them in 2016. The Mariners traded for him and SS Jean Segura from the Diamondbacks in November 2016, which was a great deal for Seattle. He hit .282 with 16 home runs in 96 games in 2017 and was even better in 2018.
He is always looking for ways to improve — at least when he’s not injured. Servais said Haniger has to get his full strength back, but hopes it won’t take too long.
Haniger is 29, which is a good thing since the Mariners have so many younger players/prospects who need direction beyond the coaching staff. As he told me last season, “I hope some young guys can learn from me, just as far as I go about my business.’’
Upon his return in 2020, the hope is he finds his 2018 form — and that the Mariners don’t trade him, as general manager Jerry Dipoto has done with so many of their best veterans, including Segura. There is speculation that Dipoto also might deal away their only other longtime position players, Kyle Seager, 32, and Dee Gordon, 32 in April. Haniger is on a one-year deal for $3 million, and not eligible for free agency until age 32, making him affordable for many clubs.
But that is then. Haniger is all about now.
“I’m really excited that I can move forward,’’ Haniger said. “I have a clear plan to get back on the field, whenever that may be. I don’t know what the timetables are. The main goal for me is just taking it one day at a time, and trying to do stuff in the training room. Make sure my diet is good, my sleep is good. Just everything I can do to control this healing process.
“Hopefully it goes as quickly and smoothly as possible.”
Haniger is overdue for some good health fortune. The Mariners are overdue to keep a popular, productive player.