LAS VEGAS — The Mariners have opted against the possibility of paying Mitch Haniger a salary of $19.65 million for only next season. But they haven’t ruled out the possibility of paying the veteran outfielder a lower salary over multiple seasons.
During Tuesday’s media session at the MLB general managers meetings, Mariners president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto confirmed that the organization is not expected to extend a qualifying offer to Haniger before Thursday’s deadline.
“I don’t think we are,” Dipoto said. “We’ve been in touch with Mitch and our hope is to work something out to have him come back. As we expected, obviously he’s now a free agent, and we knew that was going to be part of this before he ever reached free agency. We will continue to be in contact throughout. Our goal is to bring him back. It remains to be seen whether that’s a reality.”
Even though he missed a large portion of the 2022 season due to a high-ankle sprain, Haniger’s close connection with teammates and the success made the idea of playing elsewhere difficult to imagine.
In the aftermath of the 18-inning loss to the Astros, ending their postseason run, Haniger admitted he would prefer to be back in Seattle.
“I’ve loved playing here and hope to continue to play here,” he said. “I’m a really big fan of guys here, and I’ve had a blast playing, especially the last few years. I hope to be back in a Mariners uniform.”
A leader by example on a daily basis with his obsessive focus on preparation and growing more vocal with each season, Haniger felt a level of “ownership,” helping establish what is expected from a player on the team.
Dipoto could see the attachment growing.
“I would say over the last couple of years that has escalated more for Mitch,” Dipoto said. “I think where our team is now, he likes our team. He likes where we are. He likes how our situation has evolved. I think he appreciates playing in Seattle and all of those things I think give us some type of advantage. But you know, at the end of the day, free agency is a little bit of a crapshoot and we understood that was going to be part of the process.”
The Mariners could’ve increased their odds of Haniger’s return by extending the qualifying offer of one year at $19.65 million (the average of the top 150 salaries in MLB). It would’ve represented a massive salary increase from the $7.75 million he made last season in his final year of arbitration eligibility. The $19.65 million is more than the combined $14.87 million he made over six seasons with the Mariners.
It would’ve also made Haniger’s free-agent market a little less profitable. Any team that signs a player who declined a qualifying offer must forfeit a draft pick in the upcoming draft.
The Mariners would’ve also received draft pick compensation if Haniger had declined the offer and signed elsewhere.
But the idea of paying Haniger close to $20 million for one season and then having him become a free agent after 2023 wasn’t palatable to the Mariners.
“We have a lot of needs that we would like to fill, and we’d like to have as much (payroll) flexibility in doing that as we can,” Dipoto said. “That would be a sizable one-year commitment when we would prefer to work out something that makes a little bit more sense for us and for Mitch too.”
Haniger played in just 57 games in 2022, posting a .246/.308/.429 slash line with eight doubles, 11 homers and 34 RBI. He missed time on the COVID-19 injured list and suffered a high-ankle sprain in his first game back that kept him out 3 1/2 months. But the 2021 version of Haniger, who played in 157 games, has plenty of value to the Mariners and other teams. He posted a .253/.318/.485 slash line with 23 doubles, 39 homers and 100 RBI.
If Haniger were to sign elsewhere, Dipoto said the team would need to add two corner outfielders and a middle infielder.
“We view it the same as we viewed our outfield going into this year,” he said. “We kind of view the outfield as four outfielders and understanding that those four outfielders are in some way going to fill the three outfield spots and then rotate through (the) designated-hitter spot and somebody will get an occasional off-day.”
The four outfielders going into the 2022 season were Haniger, Julio Rodriguez, Jarred Kelenic and Jesse Winker.
As of now, only Rodriguez is a certainty for 2023. After struggling early, Kelenic spent most of 2022 with Class AAA Tacoma. While he posted strong numbers in Tacoma and looked better in a late-season return, the results weren’t consistent. Winker struggled through the worst season of his career both in the field and at the plate. He underwent separate surgeries on his knee and neck after the season. While he’s expected to be ready to go for spring training, the Mariners would prefer not to play Winker in the outfield as much as in 2022.
“We’ll view it in the same way this year,” Dipoto said. “We’ll have four outfielders and we’re gonna manage their playing time and make sure that we keep them all healthy and on the field, the best we can.”
Signing Haniger would mean one less need and narrow their focus to adding two impact players instead of three.
Dipoto along with general manager Justin Hollander and multiple members of the baseball operations staff have started trying to look at the free agent and trade market.
“We’re not going to sign all of them via free agency,” he said. “That’s just not how we operate. We will wind up doing some type of trade. It’ll be a combination of trade and free agency. And we’ve already started to initiate the discussions with teams.”