Fact: Michael Saunders is the best outfielder on the roster of the Seattle Mariners. Even considering he missed 70 games due to injury in 2014, that fact remains. Saunders is the best defensive corner outfielder on the club, one of its best baserunners and the third best bat behind Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager.
The research, scouting and metrics each tell the same story, yet the Mariners benched their third-best player 28 times this season in favor of Corey Hart, Endy Chavez, the struggling version of Logan Morrison and to some extent Dustin Ackley, Stefen Romero and Kendrys Morales. The club obviously has some issue with Saunders.
The social media joke is ‘why do the Mariners hate Michael Saunders?’ Certainly the club doesn’t hate Saunders, but the real question isn’t whether or not they dislike Saunders. We know the answer to that. The real question is ‘why?’ and ‘what was Saunders’ response when he was informed of the issue?’
The answer to the latter is there was no response because he was never told.
In March, new manager Lloyd McClendon told the media that Ackley was his left fielder, Justin Smoak was his first baseman and that Abraham Almonte was his centerfielder. This was in March, before the club had played a full slate of Cactus League games, long before the regular season was under way. Those choices appear to have been made based on nothing McClendon had seen up to that point. Saunders performed in Arizona, Almonte did not (not that judging a player’s worth based on spring stats is a good idea… it’s not), and Saunders had performed in the majors, Almonte had not.
So how did McClendon come to the conclusion Saunders was not one of the best three outfielders on the team? He couldn’t have seen Saunders enough as an opponent while in Detroit to know what he had or didn’t have in a player, one would imagine, and spring training performance suggests Saunders by far was the best option, and should have been starting.
Some of the benchings clearly were about handedness, which also makes no sense. Saunders outperformed even Seager versus left-handed pitching in 2014. He was solid versus lefties in 2012, and after a dip in ’13, bounced back this past season. Seager was left in the lineup versus left-handed pitching despite a .242/.291/.370 triple-slash against them. Saunders batted .252 with a .352 on-base percentage against southpaws.
When asked before the year began about Saunders’ role and after Saunders had told the media he wants to play everyday, general manager Jack Zduriencik said “we want that, too. But that’s up to Michael Saunders.”
Sounds like Saunders just needed to play well and be the best option, but he was just that — the best option — and still he didn’t play due to managerial decisions. Twenty eight times.
McClendon stated in May that Saunders is more effective when kept rested. He said on May 28 that he based the rest idea off watching Saunders “the past few months.” That means the idea that Saunders needed rest to maintain the ability, as McClendon put it, “to climb that ladder.”
That means McClendon was basing that assessment on either 36 April at-bats and 82 at-bats in May, plus, perhaps, spring training. There’s absolutely zero evidence in those two-plus months, including March’s Cactus League contests, that Saunders needs regular rest to be effective enough to remain in the lineup.
There also is no evidence of that from any previous season in the majors or the minors. I did the research, I checked every season since Saunders signed with the club.
After the season concluded, during the press conference wrapping up the 2014 season, Zduriencik again was asked about Saunders’ role. Again, Zduriencik answered that it’s up to Saunders to earn his way into the lineup.
Zduriencik reiterated the same answer, almost verbatim, when he joined 1090 The Fan last week. It’s unclear what the details are, as the club has offered none. What’s clear is the Mariners want something more from Saunders. What’s also clear, at least from Camp Saunders, is that they’ve never told him what that is.
“Jack’s comments surprised me. The first Michael and I heard of it was the day of the press conference,” said Mike McCann of Frye-McCann Sports, who represents Saunders. “Michael is frustrated with the comments. He’s frustrated because he felt he could have helped the club win when he was available.”
Saunders has never been notified of any issues the club might have with the way he goes about preparing for a game, for a season or coming off injury. Before the press conference not a single employee of the Mariners expressed concern with Michael’s off-the-field preparation, according to McCann.
“Some are freak injuries. Some are things that just happen,” Zduriencik said after the season. “But some of these things need to be handled from a maintenance standpoint where he puts himself in a position to be able to compete through the course of a season.”
“That was the first and last time we’ve heard it,” McCann said of the statement that Saunders is lacking something in the preparation and/or maintenance department. If there is something specific you want from Michael Saunders, communicate it to him.
“Michael works extremely hard to prepare himself physically, McCann continued. “He came into spring training this past year in the best shape of his life. Nobody is as disappointed as Michael is with the time he missed. It’s discouraging Michael injured himself chasing a ball down, making the catch and slamming into the wall. I think you ask most clubs, ‘do you want a player willing to sacrifice himself to make a play?’ They appreciate a that type of player. But what’s overlooked in all of this is, why when Michael Saunders was available to play wasn’t he used regularly? He played sparingly in April and wasn’t in the lineup at several critical times in September. He can change the game in so many ways. Michael has become an above-average hitter, he is effective against left-handers, too. He hits for power. He is a threat on the bases. He’s shown you he can steal 20 bases. He can score from first base on a ball hit to the gap. Michael Saunders is a gold glove caliber right fielder. He plays the game hard.”
Saunders posted a 1.9 fWAR and 2.4 bWAR this season — in 78 games and just 263 plate appearances, rivaling what Ackley did in 142 games and 542 plate appearances. The numbers, traditional and advanced metrics alike, back up the claim that he’s a good baserunner and corner outfield defender. His .346 wOBA tied Seager for No. 2 on the team as did his 126 wRC+.
Saunders’ injuries are not the issue here, either. Nobody is suggesting the club invests five years of guaranteed, market-value money to Saunders, who, by the way, played in 132 games in 2013 and 139 in 2012 before spending more than two months on the disabled list this past season. When your better players are available, they need to play. Either the Mariners do not value Saunders’ contributions as much as the various ways of evaluation suggest — which are difficult to argue against — or they are sending some kind of subliminal message, potentially (definitely) at the expense of putting their best team on the field.
The M’s were one win away from extending their season. Maybe Saunders doesn’t help the club win that one extra game. Probably (definitely), though, he does, if he’s given another 20-25 games of action.
If the Mariners are questioning Saunders’ conditioning practices and how he trains both over the winter and during the season, perhaps they should ask the player what he’s doing and suggest alternatives. That hasn’t happened. McClendon was quoted by MLB.com saying Saunders needs to hit the weight room. Again, that was never told to the player.
Saunders has been with the club through numerous managers and hitting instructors, and he’s incorporated any suggestions they had into his game, “perhaps at his own detriment,” McCann added. “Michael is not immune to instruction, he’s very open to it.”
Saunders’ injuries have been of the freak variety and due to effort, not lack of it, nor lack of attention to conditioning, McCann said. The Mariners believe something is missing, however.
McCann continued, “what is the ‘something?’ What could he have done differently preparation (and maintenance) wise? If there is something, what is it?”
Jason spent 4 1/2 years at ESPN and two years at CBS Radio prior to joining HERO Sports in July, 2016.
Find Jason's Mariners podcast, Baseball Things, right here and follow him on Twitter @ProspectInsider.
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