Michael Saunders and the Blue Jays: Time to Double Down?


When the Jays traded for Michael Saunders last November, the reaction in Toronto was largely optimistic.  He was coming off a career year, with a fWAR/600 (a fangraphs WAR extrapolated to 600 PAs) of 4.5, after posting a fWAR/600 over 2 in each of the two previous years.  His OF defense was average or better, and in particular he had a DRS (defensive runs saved) of +7 in ~1,300 career innings in LF.  And Saunders was only 28, with two years of team control remaining.

There were, however, major red flags.

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The largest of those was Saunders’ injury record.  In his previous three years, he had missed 91 games, with 68 of those in 2014 alone.  And

it had been suggested

that Saunders might have contributed to this issue through poor conditioning or a lack of preparation.

Cue 2015.

In spring training, Saunders stepped in a depression left by a sprinkler head, tearing the meniscus of his left knee.  On surgical examination, it was determined that the meniscus could not be repaired and so had to be replaced.  This appeared to be a break for the Jays, as it meant an earlier return.  But when he returned on April 25, it was clear that his knee was not right, and he was shut down again in early May with an early July expected return date.

The conventional wisdom is now for the Jays to wait for Saunders’ return and to make a decision about offering him a contract extension in the offseason, with (hopefully!) half a year of healthy production on which to base their decision.

But what if, as Rockerfeller said, we look for the opportunity within the problem?

Saunders does have an unfortunate injury record.  But his 2015 sprinker stumble can not really be held against him, and he did have 450+ PAs in each of 2012 and 2013.   And for those who believe that an “injury-prone” player will always remain so, a look at the player who “replaced” Saunders in the Mariners OF might be instructive.

Nelson Cruz missed an average of 35 games per year from 2009-2011.  But since then, Cruz has played 159 games twice and the ~50 games he missed in 2013 were a result of suspension, not injury.  Still, in 2015 one website picked him as #4 on their Top 5 Injury Prone Players.

Saunders’ career earnings are “only” (whimper) $6.5 million, including the $2.9m he will make in 2015.  Even if he has a strong 2015 and 2016, the injury-prone tag will likely limit the size of his future contracts.  And a poor 2015 + 2016 could have the opposite effect (see Smoak, Justin).

So … suppose the Jays were to offer him something like 3/13 with two option years, each with a $1 million buyout?  That would be a guaranteed $15 million, more than enough to make him financially secure.  And he would be entering well-paid option years or free agency in his age-32 season, with plenty of time left for one more large contract.  From the Jays’ perspective, they would be locking in a player with high upside for the medium-long term, with a contract that they could likely move if they chose to go another direction.

The bottom line?  The Jays have been criticized in the past for not taking chances.  Aroldis Chapman, Yu Darvish, and Jose Abreu come to mind.  But of late, the Jays appear to have recognized that winning sometimes requires gambling.  This would be a small gamble, relative to the overall budget, but arguably a highly intelligent one.

Next: Kevin Pillar: fading to irrelevance