If you comb through the interwebs these days, you’ll see plenty of MLB-trade scenarios starting to show up, even though the deadline is two months away. And one player who is appearing with increasing frequency is Mariners outfielder Mitch Haniger.
There seems to be a growing industry consensus that a Haniger trade before July 30 (the date is moved up a day this year because the 31st falls on a Saturday) is a likelihood, if not an inevitability. I saw Haniger scenarios involving the Braves, White Sox, Cardinals and Cleveland, and that list is bound to grow as the nearly epidemic MLB injury list depletes more teams.
Mark Feinsand, writing recently for MLB.com, called Haniger “an obvious trade candidate” and quoted an anonymous American League executive: “(Mariners general manager) Jerry (Dipoto) is not afraid to pull the trigger. I can’t think of any reason why they wouldn’t (trade Haniger).”
I’d like to helpfully provide some. The main one being the simplest, and most profound: Haniger is the Mariners’ best player.
That’s indisputable, whether you’re looking at FanGraphs’ Wins Above Replacement, perusing old-school stats or just trusting your eyes. This is a Mariners team that is desperate to contend after 19 years out of the playoffs. A team angling for relevance doesn’t trade its best player.
The Mariners, in fact, have an obligation to make a good-faith effort to maximize their chances to contend, not just this year — which may prove problematic despite their recent surge — but next year, when sustaining contention should be far more realistic for the M’s, by their own timetable.
At some point they have to stop dumping bona fide front-line talent such as Haniger just to keep the prospect pipeline flowing. It was a justifiable strategy to jump-start the rebuild. But eventually, the paramount goal must shift from building a crackerjack farm system and breaking in prospects to actually fielding a winning team. And that point has arrived. Haniger remaining a Mariner gives them a better chance to reach the promised land in 2022, even if it doesn’t happen this year.
The timeline for the Mariners’ rebuild to coalesce into contention has been something of a moving target, by virtue of the lost 2020 minor-league season. It’s still hard to imagine a team with an MLB-worst .205 batting average grabbing a playoff spot in ’21, despite the fact that the Mariners have survived numerous losing stretches that seemed on the verge of dooming them permanently to the second division.
On Tuesday the Mariners woke up above .500 and just two games out of the AL wild card (not to mention 2½ games off the AL West lead). That’s worthy of praise, yet still seems a fragile construct in a year that was framed mostly as one of growth and improvement by their young core.
But by 2022, all excuses will have been exhausted, and the Mariners need to produce. And they have a far better chance of doing that with Haniger on the roster, which is why I believe they should, if anything, focus on extending Haniger, not trading him.
Of course, it’s not quite that simple. It never is in baseball. Haniger is eligible for free agency after the 2022 season, so if you’re going to trade him, this is the absolute opportune time. Especially because his $3 million salary in 2021 makes him eminently affordable this year and next, which at least theoretically means that the Mariners’ “ask” can be high.
Haniger has shown he is fully recovered from the horrific injury that cost him all of 2020 and most of 2019. Haniger reached the one-third point of the season Monday on pace for 42 homers, 39 doubles, 108 runs and 105 runs batted in to go with a .261/.314/.542 slash line. Just imagine where this offense-starved team would be without Haniger, and then commence weeping.
But that kind of production will also be enticing to a team that has championship aspirations in 2021. And you can make the case that the Mariners are top heavy with outfield talent and can afford to use Haniger as trade bait to build other areas of need. After all, the outfield of the future — perhaps as soon as 2022 — has long been billed as Jarred Kelenic, Kyle Lewis and Julio Rodriguez. And now there’s another top 100 prospect, Taylor Trammell, to add to the outfield mix.
But here are my counterarguments. One, the right-knee injury that again landed Lewis on the disabled list Tuesday is ominous. Considering his history, one fears it will become a chronic problem. Even with a healthy Lewis, however, this season has shown that the Mariners need every potent bat they can muster. With Ty France likely to move to a full-time infield position (probably third base) next year, the designated hitter spot could be used to rotate all four outfielders into regular playing time. That’s if one of the young players doesn’t falter, which history has shown to be a distinct possibility.
Also, the Mariners can’t underestimate the negative message a Haniger trade would send to the rest of the team. Not just the few veterans on the Mariners, most notably starting pitcher Marco Gonzales (who signed a long-term deal through 2023 on the belief the team was building toward contention), but also the young players who have looked to Haniger for leadership. With third baseman Kyle Seager likely to be gone next year, Haniger’s departure would leave a void in veteran leadership for 2022, depending on how heavily they hit the free-agent market (which is a whole other story). And it would tell the rising young players that the future is NOT now.
It’s hard to say how much Haniger would fetch on the market this year. If the Mariners were of a mind to trade him, I suspect Dipoto would be searching for major-league-ready players in return, as he did in obtaining Ty France and others in a package last year for Austin Nola — emerging talent to dream on. But would they get someone better than Haniger right now?
Haniger, who is 30, would no doubt coax a better return than Nola, and Dipoto has proven to be creative in constructing more expansive deals. The GM has also shown a willingness to jump the marketplace, as when he traded for reliever Alex Colome and outfielder Denard Span on May 25, 2018, when the Mariners fancied themselves as contenders. (They won 89 games that year, their most since 2003, but still finished eight games out of the second wild card.) The following season, when the Mariners were dumping veteran players, Dipoto traded Jay Bruce to the Phillies on June 2, and Edwin Encarnacion to the Yankees on June 15.
So you can even say that trading season is already here, more or less. The Mariners are in an ambiguous position when it comes to determining whether they are legitimate contenders in ’21.
But even if they were to nosedive, I believe it would be prudent to hold onto the guy who already is everything they hope their young players eventually become.