Editor’s note: With MLB shut down because of the lockout, The Seattle Times is doing a position-by-position assessment of the Mariners organization entering a 2022 season filled with expectations of success.

Maybe it’s because he recognizes there is a void with the retirement of Kyle Seager.

Perhaps it’s a product of what he’s endured and ultimately overcome to not only return but come back a better version of his old self.

Realistically, it’s a natural progression of understanding and comfort-level for a player of his caliber and production.

And of course, there is the lingering understanding that this could and probably will be Mitch Haniger’s last year in a Mariners uniform, which offers him some freedom in sharing his thoughts and opinions publicly and bluntly.

He’s now the most established player on the Mariners’ current projected opening day lineup.

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A year ago, so much was unknown about Haniger and his capabilities as a player. He’d missed most of the 2019 season and all of the COVID-19-shortened-2020 season, recovering from a foul tip to his groin that eventually led to four surgeries — two to repair the testicular rupture from the play, a repair of a torn adductor muscle suffered during his rehab and a microdiscectomy, which came from compensating for the adductor strain.

While Haniger believed changes to his rehab plan, making him more flexible and stronger in different areas, along with an aggressive offseason hitting program, would have him ready and back to normal in 2021, the Mariners were cautiously optimistic. They knew that when healthy and playing every day, Haniger was one of the top 20 outfielders in MLB. But they worried about the long layoff leading to some rust and timing issues and wondered if they could keep him healthy by allowing him play to his desired workload.  

It became evident from the first days of spring training that Haniger’s maniacal work ethic and diligence to his offseason work had brought him back to 100%.

And it carried into the 2021 regular season where he played in 157 games — tying his career-high in 2018 — and posting a .253/.318/.485 slash line in 691 plate appearances with 110 runs scored, 23 doubles, two triples, 39 homers, 100 RBI, 54 walks and 169 strikeouts. He set career highs in homers and RBI. The 39 homers were the most in a season by a Mariner since Nelson Cruz hit 39 in 2017.

Along with Seager and Ty France, Haniger carried much of the offensive burden.

He’s a major reason why the Mariners were able to exceed expectations and win 90 games, playing until the final day of the regular season with a postseason berth at stake. Along the way, a noticeable joy emerged from Haniger, breaking through his normally serious and stoic façade. He grew more comfortable being vocal, and was quick to offer advice and encouragement. Haniger began embracing a leadership role.

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He took it to another level shortly after the season when he wrote a long and honest letter to Mariners fans for The Players Tribune. It was an enlightening look into the thinking and intensity of a player that had been previously cautious in his comments.

A snippet from the piece:

“We lost when it mattered most. We fell short of our goal — period.

“And I need every Mariners fan to know that.

“But I also need them to know something else: This group is going to the playoffs. That’s not an if … it’s a when. And that when is soon.

“We’re going to end this (expletive) drought.”

In that letter and later in a recent radio interview with ESPN 710, Haniger lobbied ownership and management to add talent to the roster this offseason.

“I hope our front office is reading this, and they understand that it’s time to really go all-in. It’s time to make some impact moves, and put this group over the top,” he wrote.

“The Robbie Ray signing and Adam Frazier trade were definitely two impact moves that we made that are setting ourselves up for it to be a good offseason,” Haniger told the Wyman and Bob show. “I think we still need some more big upgrades and I know adding a couple more players should put us over the top. It’s really difficult to win a World Series and I think when you have that timing and that window of young prospects that should be ready soon, but also we need guys that come in that can produce this year. The more guys that we can get with a steady track record of playing against the best of the best in the world at the MLB level, the better. If we supplement those prospects with those guys, I feel like that’s our best chance of success.”

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Haniger has taken ownership in the team, yet the Mariners aren’t necessarily invested into him beyond this season.

Had they not had the strong run of wins in the weeks leading up to the trade deadline, moving them into wild card contention, it’s likely Haniger would’ve been moved at the trade deadline. It’s something he understood before the season even started.

Why?

Well, the Mariners would’ve been selling high on a player who was going to be a free agent after the 2022 season. Because he was a late bloomer and will turn 32 going into his first free agent year, the Mariners, and most teams, aren’t necessarily interested in a contract extension.

Mariners president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto has been diplomatic in most situations when asked, saying they are waiting to see how things play out. Given his age and injury history, the Mariners’ apprehension to a long-term commitment is understandable. Teams think differently about players in their 30s. Asked at the end of last season, Haniger said the organization has never approached him or his representatives about an extension. With free agency looming a year away, he’ll likely want to test the market.

The Mariners obviously believe mega-prospect Julio Rodriguez is their right fielder of the future. He is poised to make his MLB debut at some point this season.

While there are playoff expectations for this season, if it were to go awry early and the Mariners aren’t contending by mid-July, it’s possible that Haniger could be traded to a contender.

If this is Haniger’s last season with the Mariners, it’s clear he’s going to be a dominant presence and do everything he can to make the promise made to Mariners fans come to fruition.

Right-field depth chart:

Mariners: Mitch Haniger, Jake Fraley

Class AAA Tacoma: Cade Marlowe

Class AA Arkansas: Julio Rodriguez, Zach DeLoach

High-A Everett: Alberto Rodriguez, Trent Tingelstad

Low-A Modesto: Spencer Packard, Arturo Guerrero

ACL Mariners: Miguel Perez, Gabriel Gonzalez