Valuing Michael Saunders

 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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