The Mariners have lost their best player to injury two and a half weeks before spring training officially begins.
At Thursday’s pre-spring training luncheon, general manager Jerry Dipoto announced that All-Star outfielder Mitch Haniger likely won’t be ready for opening day March 26 at T-Mobile Park.
“I was expecting him to show up for the first day of spring training ready to go, but that does not appear to be the case,” Dipoto said.
Dipoto received a phone call Monday evening that Haniger suffered a setback injury to his abdominal core while taking batting practice at Sparta Science — a popular offseason workout facility in the Bay Area. Haniger met with doctors on Tuesday to undergo tests. He was diagnosed with a core injury, more specifically a sports hernia. He will need surgery in the next few days to repair the tear in his lower abdomen. He’s likely to be out at least six to eight weeks, but it could take longer.
“It might cause him to miss most or all of spring training and delay the start of his season,” Dipoto said. “This is all sort of coming together over the last 40 hours or so. So it’s still very fresh. He’s attacking it very aggressively because he doesn’t want to miss any more time.”
The core injury is connected to the season-ending injury Haniger suffered June 6, when he fouled a ball off into his groin area and suffered a ruptured testicle. He had immediate surgery to repair the damage. He made multiple attempts to come back in the months after the surgery, but some abdominal tightness and later lower-back discomfort due to his weakened core didn’t allow him to return to the field.
After working out at a high level for much of the offseason, Haniger was following his typical offseason plan and ramping up his hitting intensity this week. He felt pain in his lower abdomen during a hitting session and immediately consulted doctors and informed the Mariners.
“Mitch was in the midst of what I think was perhaps his best offseason, certainly since he’s been with the Mariners,” Dipoto said. “You all know Mitch very well and that he’s diligent in his preparation working at Sparta Science in the Bay Area. All of his metrics, the test scores, the athletic explosiveness were off the charts.”
Last season, Haniger slashed .220/.314/.463 (batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage) with 15 home runs and 32 RBI in 63 games. In 2018, he made the All-Star Game and ended the year slashing .285/.366/.493 with 26 home runs and 93 RBI in 157 games.
So how will the Mariners fill that void? His presence as a threat in the middle of the batting order can’t be replicated by any player on the current roster. The Mariners hoped to have Haniger and Kyle Seager hitting back-to-back, providing some experience and production in a lineup filled with largely unproven players.
From an outfield standpoint, they could have Kyle Lewis play right field, as he did at the end of the 2019 season. The plan before Haniger’s injury was to put Lewis in left field. Seattle could also use Jake Fraley in right field with Braden Bishop serving as the fourth outfielder.
“The one certainty on our major league club is that Mallex (Smith) will play,” Dipoto said. “Beyond that, it’s wide open. We want to see Kyle Lewis take the ball, run with it and we expect that to happen. This probably creates more of an opportunity for Jake Fraley to make the opening-day roster in a regular role rather than moving around in a timeshare, so to speak.”
And what about top prospects Jarred Kelenic and Julio Rodriguez?
“What was already going to be healthy looks at our young high-end prospects (in spring training) are going to be healthier, although I wouldn’t anticipate that it would result in either starting with the club,” Dipoto said. “It does a great deal for the prospects of Jake Fraley, of Braden Bishop and certainly Kyle Lewis. They were already pretty high.”
The Mariners will also take a look at the free-agent market for a possible stopgap and some insurance should Lewis struggle to start the season.
“It did result in us re-engaging in the market to see if there is an outfielder with more than 50 days of experience that we might be able to bring in to help stabilize our group,” Dipoto said. “But we don’t anticipate this being a season-long issue. Six to eight weeks, if attacked quickly, would result in Mitch spending most or almost all of the season being active on the field. We can’t plan on it, so there has to be a contingency plan, and this is what we’ve got.”
Could Kelenic or Rodriguez force their way on to the team with an amazing spring?
“Sure, in a very Ken Griffey Jr.-1989 sort of way,” Dipoto said. “Again, I wouldn’t anticipate that. In Julio’s case, he has very limited experience above Low-A ball. And in Jarred’s case, just 92 plate appearances above the Cal League. I don’t want to do anything that will harm their progress. We think a lot of both players. We want to do the right thing for their development. If the Mariners in April are tougher to watch because we were taking our time to do the right thing for Julio and Jarred, that’s what we will do.”