Michael Saunders set to make his return

 Nearly three months after hitting the disabled list with an oblique injury, it appears that outfielder Michael Saunders is set to make his return to the Seattle Mariners lineup. The 27-year old began a rehab assignment several weeks ago but stepped away from the process briefly when he was granted paternal leave for the birth of his daughter. Unfortunately after one of the happiest moments in the life of the Victoria native he contracted a viral infection that cost him two weeks and more than 10 pounds of body weight.

However, all that appears to be in Saunders’ rearview mirror as it was reported Sunday that the outfielder was expected to be activated before Monday’s game against the Houston Astros.

Saunders last appeared in the majors on July 10th and hit the disabled list with a .276/.327/.434 slash line and a 115 wRC+ which would all constitute career highs. His 1.7 fWAR in 65 games played is still the third-highest mark among Mariner position players, though that mark is now equaled by the resurgent Dustin Ackley who’s played a key role during the Canadian’s absence. Plain and simple, Saunders was a big part of the first couple months of the 2014 season and despite Seattle’s success over the last three months, his absence has been noticeable.

Seattle did acquire some outfield depth when Chris Denorfia was added at the July 31st trade deadline, but the club has relied heavily on veteran Endy Chavez to fill the regular right field role. Even though Chavez has been precisely replacement value during 2014 — the fact he’s managed a 101 wRC+ should really be considered a plus considering his 76 career mark — he doesn’t play the strong brand of defence or offer the pop with the bat that Saunders does. So far on the year, and keep in mind the sample sizes are small, Saunders has been credited with 6 defensive runs saved while Chavez has cost the M’s two runs in the outfield. A net loss of 8 DRS can actually be substantial, especially when one considers that it equals the difference between having Kyle Seager and Matt Carpenter at third base. Of course there’s positional consideration in play among other factors with that example, but I digress.

[pullquote]Arguably the biggest knock on Saunders lately has been his inability to stay healthy for an entire season. He has a strong arm, can play a solid right field, run the bases well, and has some pop in his bat without any real platoon split. He had already missed 20 games prior to the oblique injury, and should he return Monday, he can add roughly 50 more games to that total.[/pullquote]

More often than not teams don’t carry much concern over a player who’s slightly below average in the field so long as their bat makes up for it, and vice versa. But the combination of Chavez and Stefen Romero that’ve covered more than two-thirds of the playing time in right field this season haven’t even been average offensively or defensively at the position. On the year the Mariners are getting a 90 wRC+ out of the right field position. Subtract the production Saunders has contributed and that number falls to 81. That may not be a significant gap, but when you consider the major difference on the defensive side of things and the fact Saunders also provides value on the base paths that the club’s other right fielders haven’t, one really begins to see how significant not having Saunders for the last three months has been. It also shows how much better this team would be had he remained healthy.

Prior to the injury, the left-hander was hitting .296 in the leadoff spot and .327 in the No. 2 spot of the lineup, but those two spots have now been occupied by Austin Jackson and Ackley, and there’s no reason to suspect that’ll change any time soon. Since Robinson Cano, Seager, and Kendrys Morales fill the next three spots in the lineup, it allows the M’s to hit Saunders in the bottom half — a significant area of weakness for the club of late. And it gives them a legitimate option for the No. 2 spot if Ackley needs another day off during the last portion of the season.

Consider that the No. 6 through No. 9 spot in the lineup went just 1-for-10 in Sunday’s shutout loss to the Texas Rangers. Having Saunders take three or four of those at bats should allow the club to generate more offense. Especially since Jackson had a pair of hits in the leadoff spot that could’ve hypothetically push a base runner into scoring position and potentially lead to a run, if not more. Of course it’s not quite that simple as that since pitchers and batters alike act differently in any given situation, but the old adage that getting runners on base will lead to runs applies in this situation. And with the difference in games sometimes being decided by a single run, it makes it all that more valuable.

Is Saunders the difference in whether or not the Seattle Mariners are able to snap a 12-year postseason drought? Probably not, but how many other contenders can boast a significant September addition to their lineup? Look at the dividends the Oakland Athletics have received from their late acquisition of Adam Dunn. Saunders can easily provide similar value when one considers the entire skills package that he provides.

Seattle has managed to get by just fine during Saunders’ absence and remain in the thick of the Wild Card race as the second week of September begins. Should the Detroit Tigers defeat the San Francisco Giants on Sunday night — they have a 6-1 lead as of this writing — the M’s will be down to a half-game lead on the second Wild Card spot but are now just two games behind the Athletics at the top of the Wild Card ladder.

This is what a postseason push feels like. Enjoy it, Mariner fans, for it is well deserved.

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Tyler Carmont

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