Mariners Notes: Haniger, Rodriguez, Kirby, Bryant

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Mitch Haniger’s sensational rebound on the heels of four surgeries was one of the highlights in a generally exciting 2021 season for Mariners fans. The now-31-year-old Haniger belted a career-high 39 home runs in a career-high 691 plate appearances, announcing his return from a gruesome sequence of injuries with authority and cementing himself in the heart of Seattle’s order — at least for now.

Haniger is set to become a free agent next offseason, and Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times takes a lengthy look at his status within the organization, noting that it’s quite possible this is Haniger’s final year with the club. The Mariners, to this point, haven’t had much interest in an extension due both to Haniger’s recent injury woes and the fact that he’ll be 32 in the first season of a new deal. It’s always possible that stance could change and talks could pick up when the lockout lifts, but barring that, Haniger would play out the current season and reach the market next winter, at which point all 30 teams would have the ability to sign him.

Further complicating the Haniger situation, of course, is the enviable depth the Mariners have in the outfield. While Haniger is entrenched in right field for the 2022 season, the Mariners hope that can be the long-term home for top prospect Julio Rodriguez, whom most outlets peg among the game’s top five to ten overall prospects. Seattle also has Jarred Kelenic, who struggled early in his debut campaign before a much stronger finish, 2020 Rookie of the Year Kyle Lewis and former top-100 prospect Taylor Trammell as potential long-term options — to say nothing of current part-time options like Jake Fraley and Dylan Moore.

Rodriguez, in particular, is on the cusp of the Majors after hitting a combined .347/.441/.560 between Class-A Advanced and Double-A this past season. The Athletic’s Corey Brock takes a look the immediate outlook for Rodriguez and three other Mariners prospects, noting that there’s at least a small chance that Rodriguez could play his way onto the Opening Day roster. As Brock notes, president of baseball ops Jerry Dipoto has stated that there’s “no unrealistic expectation” for someone as talented as the 21-year-old Rodriguez.

Of course, Rodriguez has yet to play in Triple-A, and Mariners fans in particular will recall that the organization kept Kelenic in the minors to open the 2021 campaign under similar circumstances. That was a controversial decision, due largely to comments made by former Mariners CEO Kevin Mather, though Kelenic’s early struggles and his subsequent option back to Triple-A Tacoma at least made the Mariners’ decision look justifiable.

Heading into the 2022 season, Seattle could reasonably look to Haniger, Kelenic, Lewis, Fraley and newcomer Adam Frazier in the outfield (the latter depending heavily on what type of infielder or infielders Seattle adds in trade or free agency). There’s no urgent need for Rodriguez to break camp, but a big enough showing in whatever limited exhibition games we get could make his future a bigger talking point.

Also knocking on the door to the big leagues is 24-year-old right-hander George Kirby — a consensus top-100 prospect himself who’s expected to make his big league debut this coming season. He’s yet to pitch in Triple-A and only logged 26 frames in Double-A last season, so that’ll quite likely come later in the season — and Brock suggests it’d likely happen only if a legitimate rotation spot is opened due to injury or other circumstances. Kirby pitched in just 67 2/3 innings last season, and electric as they were, he could still use some further development.

In some respects, Rodriguez and Kirby are similar to last year’s ballyhooed duo of Kelenic and righty Logan Gilbert. Both debuted with huge fanfare, and while there were plenty of highlights (particularly down the stretch), there were plenty of ups and downs as well. Still, Seattle reliever Paul Sewald mentioned both Kelenic and Gilbert in an interview with Stacy Rost and Jake Heaps on 710 ESPN (YouTube link), pointing to both as potential examples of service-time manipulation when explaining the MLBPA’s stance in the ongoing labor talks.

Sewald, a close friend of Kris Bryant, pointed back to the longtime Cubs slugger’s delayed debut as the most egregious incident of service-time manipulation but also used the 2021 Mariners to rhetorically raise another aspect of the service-time debate.

“If we had Logan Gilbert and Jarred Kelenic from Opening Day, are we two games better and maybe we make the playoffs?” Sewald said. “I don’t know. I don’t know that for a fact. I’m just saying, if we weren’t looking at service-time manipulation, could they make an impact where you [instead of] finishing one game back, two games back, you maybe make the playoffs? It’s disappointing.”

Sewald certainly isn’t claiming Seattle would’ve been postseason-bound had both players debuted earlier — Kelenic certainly didn’t hit the ground running, after all — but it’s another aspect of the puzzle to consider. A more prominent example of that could be the 2010 Braves, who did make the decision to carry Jason Heyward on the Opening Day roster and ultimately edged out the Padres by one game for a Wild Card berth. Had they withheld Heyward, who hit .277/.393/.456 and finished second in Rookie of the Year voting, they could well have missed the postseason. There are obvious business reasons for teams to keep players down, and those who choose to do so aren’t necessarily doing anything wrong and are simply using the current system to their long-term advantage. Still, Sewald’s general point, outside of any specific examples, is one piece of the issue that isn’t always discussed.

Of greater note to Mariners fans, perhaps, is Sewald’s mention that he and Bryant are close friends. The Las Vegas natives are college teammates who’ve known each other since high school, and Sewald acknowledged that he’s lobbied for a reunion.

“I convinced him to go to University of San Diego with me and play with me there,” Sewald said with a laugh. “I am doing the best that I possibly can to convince him to be a Seattle Mariner for the next few years.”

Dollars and years figure to win the day whenever Bryant puts pen to paper, and Sewald’s comments are little more than anecdotal. That said, Mariners fans surely don’t mind having a close friend of Bryant on the roster who’s attempting to sell him on the team, city and fan base — all else being equal.

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