SEATTLE — Mitch Haniger leaned into his locker, exhaled and then smiled. The veteran outfielder canvassed the home clubhouse at T-Mobile Park, incredibly proud of what the Mariners had accomplished but equally defeated by the 18-inning loss to the Astros in Game 3 of the American League Division Series that ended their season.
It’s possible that it could’ve been his final moments as a Mariner, as president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto said on Tuesday at the General Managers Meetings in Las Vegas that the club will not extend Haniger a qualifying offer for 2023, which will make Haniger eligible for free agency on Thursday at 2 pm PT.
“I don’t think we are,” Dipoto told reporters. “We’ve been in touch with Mitch, and our hope is to work something out and have him come back. As we expected, obviously he’s now a free agent and we knew he was going to be part of this. But before he ever reaches free agency, we will continue to be in contact throughout. Our goal is to bring him back. It remains to be seen whether that’s a reality.”
The qualifying offer is a one-year deal worth the mean salary of MLB’s 125 highest-paid players from the year prior — it’s valued at $19.25 million for next year, well above the $7.75 million Haniger earned last year and the $14.89 million he’s earned in his entire six-year career.
Yet Haniger seemed like a strong candidate for a qualifying offer given that, at his best, he’s one of the premier power-hitting outfielders. However, injuries prevented him from playing more than 100 games in four his six seasons with Seattle.
If Haniger had received the qualifying offer, then declined and signed with another team, the Mariners would have received Draft pick compensation, a commodity that Dipoto’s front office values greatly. But the salary figure, which would have made Haniger the second-highest-paid Mariner for 2023, and the prospect of him being a free agent in one year were too burdensome for Seattle.
“We have a lot of needs that we would like to fill, and we’d like to have as much [financial] flexibility in doing that as we can,” Dipoto said. “That would be a sizable one-year commitment when we would prefer to work out something that makes a little bit more sense for us and for Mitch, too.”
One advantage that the Mariners may have on the open market is the comfort that blossomed for Haniger, especially over the past two seasons.
“I’ve loved playing here and hope to continue to play here,” Haniger said after the Mariners’ season-ending loss to Houston in the ALDS. “I’m a really big fan of guys here, and I’ve had a blast playing, especially the last few years. I hope to be back in a Mariners uniform.”
Haniger, 31, is the Mariners’ longest-tenured position player, one of the lone holdovers from the previous regime before the rebuild — along with starting pitcher Marco Gonzales — and among the only veteran leaders in a clubhouse composed of mostly young talent . And after returning in 2021 from three surgeries that put his career in jeopardy and cost him more than a year and a half, Haniger took on a lead-by-example role.
“I would say over the last couple of years, that has escalated more for Mitch,” Dipoto said. “I think where our team is now, he likes our team. He likes where we are. He likes how our situation has evolved. I think he appreciates playing in Seattle and all of those things I think give us some type of advantage. But at the end of the day, free agency is a little bit of a crapshoot and we understood that it was going to be part of the process.”
Haniger slashed .246/.308/.429 (.737 OPS) with 11 homers and 34 RBIs in 57 games in 2022, having been sidelined for more than three months from April to August with a Grade 2 high right ankle sprain, then back pain later in the season. It was an admittedly disappointing showing by his standards, especially after being one of just nine players with at least 39 homers and 100 RBIs in 2021.
If the Mariners don’t re-sign Haniger, they’ll have a fairly significant void to fill in the right field and in the middle of their lineup.
“I’ve definitely tried to not think about it as much as I possibly can over the last couple of months and over the last year, and I think I’ve done a really good job at that,” Haniger said recently. “I’m not really worried about what’s going to happen in the future and just focus on playing winning ballgames. But I’m sure I’ll start thinking about it a lot over the next couple of weeks.”