Mitch Haniger wasn't the marquee player in the Mariners five-player trade with the Diamondbacks in November. But he was a key piece in the deal and an expected contributor in 2017.

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NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland — To the casual fan, Mitch Haniger was a throw-in piece in a trade. Just organizational depth fodder exchanged to even out the deal that brought shortstop Jean Segura to the Mariners.

But to the Mariners and general manager Jerry Dipoto, the acquisition of Haniger along with Segura and left-handed pitcher Zac Curtis could be a difference maker for the organization in the coming years.

“For us, Haniger became a critical element of the trade,” Dipoto said. “We like the player. We like the upside. We like his physicality.”

They like Haniger so much that there’s a good chance he could be starting in right field on opening day at Minute Maid Park in Houston. If he has a solid spring training, there’s every reason to believe he will be on the opening day roster and seeing plenty of time in right field, perhaps sharing duties with Seth Smith.

“Haniger could end up being the most important player in that trade,” said an opposing scout. “There’s some potential.”

So who is Mitch Haniger?

“It’s not like this guy was an unknown,” Dipoto said.

Well, maybe not to the hardcore baseball folks.

Haniger is a former first-round pick of the Milwaukee Brewers in 2012 out of Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo. The Brewers later traded him to Arizona at the 2014 trade deadline for outfielder Gerardo Parra.

He had a breakout season in 2016, earning the organization’s minor league player of the year honors . In 129 games combined between Class AA Mobile and Class AAA Reno, he hit .321 (147-for-458) with a .999 on-base plus slugging percentage, 34 doubles, five triples, 25 home runs, 94 RBI and 12 stolen bases in 129 games.

The monster year can be attributed to making swing changes midway through the 2015 season after being demoted to the Low-A level and continuing the polishing into that offseason. He added a leg kick and later changed his hand placement pre-swing, which allowed him to find a better swing path. He used Toronto’s Josh Donaldson and fellow Diamondback A.J. Pollock as examples to emulate.

The changes allowed him to hit his way from Class AA at the start of the 2016 season to finishing with a late-season call-up. He played in 34 games, hitting .229 with two doubles, a triple, five homers and 17 RBI. Haniger is also an above average defensive player with the ability to handle center field.

“He’s athletic, he plays all three spots, he throws very well and very accurately,” Dipoto said. “He’s an excellent defender. He’s hungry and he’s got great makeup.”

Because he turns 26 in December and has had a meandering path to success with plenty of swing-and-miss issues in the past, Haniger wasn’t considered a major prospect despite his numbers. But Dipoto considers him a “late bloomer” that has finally figured things out.

“There are many situations where at 25-years-old, a guy has performed his way onto the Major League scene,” he said. “And because he wasn’t adored by prospect ratings systems, he kind of flies in under the radar. But a lot of times, they’ll turn out to be really good players.

He even likened Haniger to one of his former players on the Angels.

“We had a guy like that in Anaheim, Kole Calhoun, who has turned out to be a hell of a ball player. I think Mitch Haniger has a lot of that ability as well.”

In trying to project the Mariners’ 25-man roster and listening to Dipoto’s comments, the team could be starting Hanigar or fellow rookie Ben Gamel  or both in the outfield in a large portion of games. The roster could project to having Leonys Martin, Seth Smith, Haniger and Gamel as the main group with Danny Valencia and Nelson Cruz seeing an occasional game in the outfield.

The Mariners, specifically Dipoto, believe that Gamel and Haniger as well as first baseman Dan Vogelbach have earned opportunities to perform this season. It’s why they aren’t actively looking for experienced outfielders at the winter meetings. Dipoto has said the bulk of their roster in terms of position players is done.

“We won’t be the youngest team on the field,” Dipoto said. “But we feel like these guys have done what they can do (in the minor leagues). They’ve done their time.”

 

The quest for pitching

The Mariners continued to look at trade possibilities for a starting pitcher on Tuesday, but did not make a deal.

“I don’t have much to offer today,” Dipoto said. “We’re not in a much different place than when we spoke yesterday. We had a handful of conversations with a variety of teams on possible trade targets. I feel like we are making some progress, but nothing imminent.”

There is no desperation to make a move this moment.

“Inevitably, we could go make A move,” he said. “But we are just not going to make a move until it’s a move that we want to make. Right now our goal is to find someone that makes us feel a little better about the stability of our starting five in the big leagues.”

The big news of the day at the meetings does give Seattle some additional options for stability. With the Red Sox acquiring all-star left-hander Chris Sale from the White Sox for four prospects, Boston suddenly has an excess of starting pitchers.

Red Sox president Dave Dombrowski was asked if he was willing to deal one of those pitchers.

“It’s not a necessity,” he said. “You can never have enough pitching, but we would at least be open-minded.”

In other words, yes.

Of the group, the two most likely to be dealt would be left-hander Drew Pomeranz or right-hander Clay Bucholz. Boston would love to dump the under-achieving Bucholz, who hasn’t been good for a while with wandering command and durability issues. He’s owed $13.5 million for next season. It’s unlikely that the Mariners would take on that much money given Bucholz’ struggles.

Pomeranz would be the better and more desired fit since he’s under club control for two seasons. He’s second arbitration eligible for 2017 and projected to make $4.7 million. Pomeranz had a breakout first half of the season for the Padres, posting a 2.47 ERA in 17 starts with San Diego. He was dealt to Boston midseason and posted a 3-5 record with a 4.59 ERA in 13 starts and a relief appearance.

 

Also

An ESPN report linked the Mariners to a possible reunion with free agent slugger Mark Trumbo. While the organization did check on Trumbo, who led MLB with 47 homers this season, it seems like an unlikely move given that Dipoto has traded Trumbo twice in his career — once in Anaheim and once in Seattle. Trumbo also lacks a true position in the field and is looking for a multi-year deal. Another issue is that Trumbo has a qualifying offer attached to him, meaning the Mariners would forfeit their first-round pick if they signed him.