Michael Saunders has become a forgotten man for the Toronto Blue Jays. After coming to the Blue Jays from Seattle in an offseason trade for J.A. Happ, the outfielder has been shut down for over two months since his knee injury flared back up in May. Saunders remains optimistic that he will impact the 25-man roster again in 2015, but as the injury drags on, that is beginning to seem less likely.
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Arden Zwelling of Sportsnet spoke with Saunders recently about the team’s return to Seattle and the progress he’s begun to make. Zwelling reports that the bone bruise on his tibial plateau showed regression in an MRI one month ago, and another check this past week revealed further healing had taken place. He has begun weight-bearing exercises, but has yet to be cleared for full baseball activities.
While the recovery has been physically challenging, the mental side has worn on the 28-year old, especially with Toronto’s return to his old baseball home. “It’s been really, really tough on me. It’s been really hard to watch the guys battle out there day in and day out,” Saunders tells Zwelling. “They’re fighting for a playoff spot; they’re right in the mix. I’m sure it’s got to be very exciting for the city of Toronto and I really wish I was a part of that.
My mindset is that my season’s not finished. I’m working hard to make sure I come back and hopefully come back at the perfect time and try to help this team in a playoff race.”
A September return for Saunders now represents the best-case scenario, but the gradual push-back of his expected return date could easily continue as it has. When Saunders was shut down in May, it was expected to be for just 4-to-6 weeks.
Without facing live pitching in that span, the issue of timing could impede Saunders just as much as his health. His initial rehab stint with High-A Dunedin lasted nine games, so one would have to assume that the second go-around would require even more. Even if Saunders is “ready” by mid-September, what kind of player with the Blue Jays be getting?
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If Toronto remains involved in some form of playoff race at that point, the club could not take the risk of rolling out Saunders in a regular role to see where he stands. Instead, he may be used situationally, but his game, at that point, may not lend itself as well to that role as someone like Dalton Pompey.
Saunders would likely not be an impact on the base paths after returning from rehab, and while he is a fully competent fielder, he won’t return as a Kevin Pillar impersonator. Pompey, or dare I say it, a September call-up of Anthony Alford (dare to dream), would at least offer pinch-running speed. Off the bench, someone like Colabello or Valencia should still offer an equal-or-better hitting tool in pinch-hit situations.
This is not to say those players have superior traits to Saunders as a whole, but if Saunders returns at 80-90%, each could have an edge in some way. Saunders’ greatest value is as an all-around player who doesn’t leap off the screen with one dominant trait, and in my opinion, the lack of a starting job being available for him makes his impact on the 2015 Blue Jays somewhat unlikely.
We don’t know if Saunders was “rushed” back on the first occasion, but we do know that his knee reacted poorly. He’ll remain a candidate to start in left field next season, and while I’d absolutely love to be proven wrong, I’m not as optimistic as Saunders about his 2015 outlook.