It’s been ten years since the Seattle Mariners drafted Michael Saunders in the 11th round of the 2004 Amateur Draft, and it appears as though they’ve found out what they’ve got in the Canadian-born outfielder. Heading into his first season as an arbitration-eligible player, he appears to be a lock to play everyday in either center or right field in 2014 after passing the 130 game plateau in a second straight season. Not to mention the lack of superior alternatives currently on the roster.

Saunders enjoyed somewhat of a breakout season in 2012, his first full year in the big leagues. The .247/.306/.432 line he posted may not be all that impressive, but he managed to steal 21 bases and hit 19 home runs; good for 2.4 bWAR and 2.1 fWAR overall. Often considered a glove-first player, UZR suggested otherwise with his -8.2 rating on the year, although that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s a poor defender. The Condor didn’t improve on his ’12 season they way most hoped as his steals and homers fell to 13 and 12 respectively, and his line dropped to .236/.323/.397 in 2013. He did get closer to being an average defender according to UZR however, with a -4.2 UZR rating.

A couple interesting stats to note from Saunders’ 2013 season: despite playing in only seven less games compared to ’12, he totalled 85 fewer plate appearances; he improved his walk rate to 11.5 percent from 7.8 percent in ’12; his BABIP was only one point higher than in ’12; his ISO fell from .185 to .160 in ’13; he had a 5.4 UZR rating in 246 innings in right field compared to a -9.6 UZR rating in 627 innings in center field.

The increased walk rate is a big plus to take away from 2013 since he’s struck out in approximately a quarter of his career plate appearances. Steamer projects a similar walk rate in 2014, but anything over his 9.1 percent career walk rate would be another step in the right direction, unless he suddenly discovers how to maintain a .270 batting average. The 27-year old’s regression in his ISO and home run numbers are concerning, but it’s possible he was affected by a shoulder injury beyond his April trip to the disabled list. Officially it was a right shoulder strain, so perhaps Saunders’ mechanics as a left handed hitter were affected due to any amount of lingering discomfort.

A look at Saunders’ statistics from last May, his first full month after being on the DL, and we find a measly .187/.282/.297 line and a 54 WRC+. While it’s fair to suggest his shoulder injury may have had something to do with that, a look at his career line in May of .194/.265/.299 and 58 wRC+ suggests that May just hasn’t been a very good month for the Canadian. It’s not unusual for players to slump for particular parts of the year as those statistics tend to even themselves out over the course of an entire season. For what it’s worth, Saunders’ best offensive month thus far in his career has been July.

Shifting gears to the defensive side of the ball, Saunders may be best suited to handle a corner position in the outfield rather than center despite the fact his athleticism and speed make doing so look appealing. His bat doesn’t necessarily profile him as a corner outfielder, but he does enough things at the plate as well as on the base paths to make up for it. Since regular center fielder Franklin Gutierrez battled multiple injuries over 2011-13, Saunders found himself playing more and more in the middle which isn’t entirely surprising considering 27-year old played the bulk of his minor league career there.

Keeping Saunder in either right or left field may be a little difficult in 2014 as the Mariners are expected to have newcomers Logan Morrison and Corey Hart spend time in right when they’re not filling the designated hitter role, given Justin Smoak’s presence at first base. As it stands, Gutierrez, Abraham Almonte, and Dustin Ackley make up the rest of the outfield depth. Given Gutierrez’s previous health issues he’s no sure bet to manage even 60 games this year, and despite Almonte impressive cameo appearance this past September, Seattle may prefer to let him play as much as possible at Triple-A to start the year at least.

Ackley played 50 games in center last year and managed a -7.0 UZR or a -19.7 UZR/100. While that’s far too small a sample size to draw precise conclusions from, on the surface it appears that the natural second baseman may require a long transition to become a decent full-time centerfielder. The former second overall draft pick spent less than 100 innings in left field in ’13, an even smaller sample size to accurately analyze, so for the time being, we won’t. With a certain shiny new second baseman in the picture, Ackley may have to find a home in the outfield if he’s to remain in Seattle, and that home may be left field.

So we’ve established Saunders is a quality corner outfielder at this point, and it’s quite safe to say the Oliver projection system also likes him given his projection of 3.0 fWAR in 2014; the Steamer projection disagrees and projects 1.0 fWAR. That valuation isn’t that farfetched provided Saunders finds some consistency at the plate. Although his base running metrics suggest he’s above average on the base paths, he simply strikes out too much and doesn’t hit for enough average to be a dependable leadoff hitter. Saunders did spend the majority of April and May of last year hitting in the top two lineup spots and spent a stretch in August of 2012 hitting in the two spot as well. He’s probably better suited to hit between the sixth and eighth spots in the order currently considering his pop. It’s reasonable to suggest he’ll see more time at the top of the order given the Mariners’ alternative options.

Saunders projects to earn $2 million in ’14 so if he struggles it won’t be costly to the Mariners, but if he’s able to sniff his projected value of 3.0 fWAR, that’s excellent value. Age 27 is still relatively young for a player, so there’s a good chance there’s still some room for Saunders to grow before he hits his ceiling as a player.

All told, if Saunders can spend a healthy year in a corner outfield position he’ll be a valuable piece for Seattle in the coming year and beyond. However, too much time as a centerfielder could change that in a hurry.

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Tyler Carmont

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  1. According to Fangraphs UZR/150 his defense was -9.3 in 2012 and -5.6 in 2013, which surprises me as he seemed to pass the eye test out there. If he was hitting .280 or better that level would not be a problem but the M’s are defensively challenged at this point in time. He adds value on the base paths and has a +1.2 fWAR, which is not terrible but he’s no All Star and I think he has it in him to do that. There’s going to be competition in the OF in spring training, which hopefully will produce a better product than they ran out there last season.

  2. Saunders’ value doesn’t necessarily show up in obvious ways. Most guys who hit .230 aren’t going to get much praise. If Saunders can play above average defence and go 20/20, I could almost care less what his batting average looks like at year’s end.

  3. If Saunders showed what he did in 2012, he does not need to step aside. That’s dead average performance, with any improvement coming from outside the organization.

    I’m getting the sense that people are under-rating what he’s actually done.

  4. I think both Saunders and Smoak are going to have to show the goods this season. Like most, I like them personally but they are going to have to contribute more over a full season or step aside. I think they can both do it but I don’t fill out the lineup card or sign their paychecks. As of now the team is about to .500. They will probably add some bits yet to get over .500 but anything beyond that requires people like Saunders, Smoak, Zunino, Ackley, Miller, Walker, Paxton and Ramirez to up their game this year for the team to have any hope of contending in the AL West which is fast becoming as challenging as the AL East. Despite what he’s being paid Cano is only part of the answer. He’s a good part though, we need more of them.

  5. FanGraph had Saunders at a 1.2 WAR in 2013 with a player value at $5.8M, so the $2.3m is a pretty decent price. Also, Saunders 2012 numbers were 2.1 WAR with a player value of $9.4M in 2012.

    There is no indication that he can’t continue to put up at least 2012 & 2013 numbers. He’s no Kemp, but he is definitely a very tradable commodity for cheap and 3 more years of club control.

  6. He did, but coming off of a down year in 2013, I’d be happy with him simply getting back to the 2 fWAR mark this year. Anything beyond that point would just be gravy.

  7. Hm….didn’t he already post a 2.0 in 2012? Projecting that doesn’t seem to be a stretch…

  8. Saunders, and Smoak as well, is one of those bubble guys who look better considering their competition on the roster is minimal. On the other hand, when we look at what the stats say, Saunders could be a decent outfielder as long as his bat can keep up. I think the 3.0 fWAR projection is awfully generous, but if he’s a 2 win play this year or the next, that’s not a bad thing.

  9. When will the M’s learn that it’s better to let their players recover fully from their injuries rather than being half-speed liabilities for weeks at a time?

  10. We all realize that small sample sizes are dangerous, but I don’t think it’s wise to completely ignore what Saunders and Ackley did the second half of last year–after Saunders apparently recovered from his injury…and Ackley returned from Tacoma to fix what was ‘broken’.

    Saunders was 250/350/440, for a WRC+ of 118…in the same neighborhood as Torii Hunter, Howie Kendrick, Adam Jones and Shane Victorino–but younger than all of them.

    Ackely went 304/374/435 with a WRC+ of 126…putting him up there with Utley, Zimmerman, Fielder and Adrian Gonzalez. Of course, he doesn’t have the profile of a slugger…but he’s still only 26. At that age, Edgar hadn’t made the starting lineup yet.

    Unfortunately, Smoak’s ‘good’ half last year was before the All Star break…so there’s no momentum argument to be made for him.

    But I would HATE for us to give up on Saunders or Ackley too soon.

  11. I think you only prove that Saunders is a 4th OF. Personally, I like the guy, but the reason he’s played as much as he has, is because the alternative sucks. He’s got to improve offensively or he’s nothing more than a 4th on a good team. We have a lack of depth and lack of competition in the OF.

    Smoak is another guy I have a soft spot for, but the experiment can only continue for so long. If Hart and Morrison demonstrate they are NOT outfielders (which I suspect), they may take over 1B/DH full-time, leaving Smoak without a job. This is good news for Saunders/Ackley/Almonte, bad news for fans.

    Same thing for Ackley, a man without a position to match his bat (or lack of). I hope Saunders/Smoak/Ackley all find their swing in a hurry.

  12. I’m thinking that “if” we still have Smoak come April, he’s our 1b against RHP, but Ackley does well at 1B defensively (better than the OF). Ackley’s 2B UZR is outstanding at 5.8 (if I recall right), even over Cano’s last year. I really like to take the 1st half of 2014 to see “if” Ackley can extend his 2013 2nd half results into 2014. Ackely has a lot better splits with LHPs than Smoak, but I’d imagine Hart would get the platoon playing time at 1B against LHPs, while Smoak should be benched in 2014.

    Seattle should make Smoak give up on being a switch hitter, and bench him against LHPs. I’ve been a huge supporter of “not” giving up on Smoak for the past 3 years. I love his LH swing at Safeco, and it reminds me so much of JRs swing. It’s time to finally move on. I say platoon Smoak at 1B with Hart for the 1st half of 2014, and Smoaks RHP ABs should improve his value “if” his ABs against LHPs are taken out of the equation. Doing this will increase his value somewhat prior to the July trade deadline.

    Regarding Gutierrez? For a $1M base, you run him as much as you can in CF as long as he’s healthy. To get back value from Gutz’s contract, it won’t take much playing time for him, but run with out there as much as possible until something happens to him. He plays 2 months of the season and he will be worth his current contract with the M’s. “If” you get 4-6 months of the season, and Seattle has gain major value from his 2014 services.

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