SEATTLE — This was already going to be a year where the Seattle Mariners would be relying heavily on young players and some of their top prospects right from the beginning of the season.
Now the Mariners expect to be without one of their few veterans — likely for the first month.
Outfielder Mitch Haniger is expected to miss the start of the regular season and likely needs to undergo core muscle surgery, general manager Jerry Dipoto said Thursday.
Haniger suffered the injury during one of his offseason workouts earlier this week. Dipoto said the latest setback is tied to Haniger's injury issues from last season.
“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.
Haniger missed the final 3 1/2 months of the season after suffering a ruptured testicle and then experiencing back and core issues during his recovery. Haniger was limited to 63 games and batted .220 with 15 homers and 32 RBIs.
A year earlier, Haniger was an All-Star after hitting .285 with 26 homers and 93 RBIs and an OPS of .859.
Dipoto said the hope is that Haniger's recovery will take about six to eight weeks following the surgery. He could be ready to join the major league club sometime in late April.
“He's attacking it very aggressively because he doesn't want to miss anymore time," Dipoto said. "Mitch was in the midst of what I think was perhaps his best offseason, certainly since he's been with the Mariners.”
The loss of Haniger is two-fold for the Mariners. Along with Dee Gordon and Kyle Seager, Haniger was expected to be one of the few experienced veterans the Mariners could lean on early in a season where the next phase of Seattle's rebuild will begin. The Mariners are likely to field one of the youngest teams in the American League, with a handful of rookies or second-year players expected to be in the everyday lineup.
But it also delays the possibility that Haniger could become an eventual trade chip for the Mariners. Dipoto and manager Scott Servais have regularly considered Haniger a main part of Seattle's core moving forward into 2021 and 2022 when the Mariners hope their roster is ready to contend in the AL West.
He’s also one of the few remaining options on Seattle’s retooled roster who could draw additional prospects if needed.
“I do know Mitch well enough. He will do everything he can to get back as soon as he can. Six, seven, eight weeks, whatever it is. ... It's disappointing. I was really looking forward to having him back. Putting that name in the lineup is a nice security blanket," Servais said.
But Haniger's injury will open up another opportunity — however limited — for another young outfielder to make his mark during a season where youth will define the Mariners.
Last season was a transition year for Seattle as older players were traded off for younger prospects. Some of that young talent reached Seattle by the end of the season, while others continued to make their way through a minor-league system that has quickly transformed from one of the worst in baseball into one of the best.
Seattle expects the likes of outfielder Kyle Lewis, first baseman Evan White, second baseman Shed Long and pitchers Justus Sheffield and Justin Dunn to be key pieces of the upcoming season. The injury to Haniger may also allow Jake Fraley or Braden Bishop to earn more playing time early on.
Getting all of those players extensive experience this season is a priority for Dipoto and Servais. They know it will likely come with plenty of losses, but they are trying to maintain perspective. They understand the rocky results now will hopefully start to be beneficial a year from now when the next wave of top prospects in their system — including Jarred Kelenic and Julio Rodriguez — may be ready to help in the majors.
“We all have a clear vision for what we want this to look like. But to get there is not going to be a smooth line. Not at all," Servais said. "There will be some dips and guys fighting through adversity and we know that going in. But I couldn’t be any more excited about the core group of talented young guys we’ve got.”
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