By Bob Dutton
The News Tribune
SEATTLE — The opportunity that now awaits Mariners outfielder Mitch Haniger is all that any young player wants. The chance to prove he deserves regular duty in the big leagues.
“I worked a long time and real hard for this,” he said, “so I’ll try to take nothing for granted but I’m looking forward to spring training. For me, it’s all about competing and trying to win a job.
“I’m not looking too far ahead. I’m just hoping to get to Arizona early and to get after it.”
The Mariners see Haniger, 26, as the answer to their need for a right-handed power bat in what has been a lefty-heavy lineup. He was a key component in the November deal with Arizona that also netted shortstop Jean Segura.
“By the numbers,” general manager Jerry Dipoto said, “(Haniger) was able to show that he was the best offensive player (last year) in the minor leagues at any level.”
Dipoto made it clear earlier this week that when spring training opens next month, right field is Haniger’s job to lose. Two other rookies, Ben Gamel and Guillermo Heredia, are projected to battle for duty as an outfield reserve.
“Mitch is probably the more developed and polished,” Dipoto said. “He’s also a right-handed batter, and we acquired him for that reason. Mitch is also the one that brings with him a skill set that includes power, and he’s got on-base ability.”
If Haniger stumbles, he has options available and could wind up at Triple-A Tacoma. But the Mariners believe — as does Haniger — that his career trajectory, which he redirected two years ago, points to a bright future.
About that change…
Haniger was still new at the time to the Arizona organization, having been acquired the previous year at the July 31 trade deadline, and he found himself facing a demotion to Hi-A after spending the previous year at Double-A.
“I started working on (my swing) before that happened,” he said. “I wasn’t playing as much as I’d like in Double-A, so I asked to go down. I said I wanted to play, and they said, ‘Well, we have a lot of guys here.’”
That could have been a jolt.
Haniger was a first-round pick in 2012 and started the 2014 season ranked as the No. 3 prospect in the Milwaukee organization before getting re-routed to the Diamondbacks. Now he was taking a step back.
Rather than pout, Haniger embraced the move as an opportunity to rework his swing by playing every day at Hi-A Visalia.
“A ton of different things but mostly swing plane,” he recalled. “I changed how I thought about mechanics. I read a lot of articles about different mechanical philosophies and (tried to determine) what makes the most sense for me.”
Haniger locked in on Toronto third baseman Josh Donaldson and Arizona center fielder A.J. Pollock — two players who are similar in build to the 210 pounds on his 6-foot-2 frame.
“I studied mostly right-handed hitters because that’s what I am,” Haniger said. “I studied lefties, too, but for the most part, it was right-handed guys who aren’t ginormous in size but who produce a lot of power.
“That’s what I felt like I hadn’t been able to tap into.”
Progress came immediately but in slow bites. Even so, by late June, Haniger was back at Double-A Mobile and finished the season by posting a .310/.368/.515 (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) slash in 104 games.
All three numbers were, easily, the best in his career.
“Then in the off-season before last year,” Haniger said, “I got even more technical, and I started focusing on my upper half more instead of my lower half. A combination of the two really opened up (my potential).”
After a strong start last season at Mobile, Haniger reached Triple-A Reno in early June. His roll not only continued, it accelerated; he posted a .341/.428/.670 slash for the Aces in 74 games.
Overall, Haniger again set career highs in all three slash numbers at .321/.419/.581. He also set career highs with 25 homers and 94 RBI and, by mid-August, he was in the big leagues.
“With plenty of raw power, good bat speed and now an efficient swing,” Baseball America reported, “Haniger makes consistent hard contact at the plate.”
Haniger flashed potential in 34 big-league games by producing five homers and 17 RBI despite batting just .229. Defensively, he graded out well in most advanced metrics. Nonetheless, his overall self-assessment was harsh.
“I think I really underperformed,” he said. “I think I’m capable of a lot more than I showed. I think I learned a lot. I think that was a great experience and, in this off-season, I tried to fix some of the stuff that I want to get better at.”
And now, opportunity awaits.
“Initially, I was just really shocked (by the trade),” Haniger admitted. “The timing. It was the night before Thanksgiving. I had a voicemail notification from (general manager) Mike Hazen of the D-Backs’ organization.
“So I called him back and, from the tone of his voice, I knew something was up. He told me, and I was just shocked at first. Then once I started thinking about everything, I got really excited and felt fortunate. It’s going to be good.”