When the Blue Jays traded J. A. Happ for Michael Saunders last December, the reactions were mixed. On the one hand, Saunders was a good young Canadian talent, coming off a career half-season (2.0 fWAR in 263 PAs, which would extrapolate to over 4 fWAR in a 550-PA full season). On the other hand, this trade signaled the end of the Blue Jays’ attempts to resign Melky Cabrera, who was coming off a solid 2014 of his own, and who many fans were hoping would return.
Saunders was expected to be the Jays’ starting LF in 2015 until he injured his knee in a freak accident during spring training when he stepped on the depression left by a sprinkler head, tearing the meniscus in his left knee. He had surgery and attempted to come back in April, but without success. He ended up missing the remainder of the 2015 season.
With the 4+ fWAR of Kevin Pillar in CF, the strong performance of Ben Revere in LF since his acquisition in August and the re-emergence of Dalton Pompey in AA and AAA, Saunders has become the forgotten man in the Jays’ outfield.
Which brings us to Blue Jays hidden asset #3: Michael Saunders.
Why I Like Mike
Mikey’s 2014 stat line of .273/.341/.450 with a 126 wRC+ is very attractive in its own right. But as you dig deeper, it starts to look even better.
Saunders is a left-handed batter who hits better (2014 wRC+ of 136) against RHP than LHP (2014 wRC+ of 101). This could fit well in a Jays lineup which, as a team, had a 124 wRC+ against LHP and a 112 against RHP.
His hitting stats were also depressed by a (relatively) poor first half, where his wRC+ was only 118. In September/October, it was 171 and in July (he missed August) it was 155. So he was getting better as the season progressed.
Saunders is generally held to be an average fielder, based in part on his career UZR/150 of +0.9. But again, digging deeper tells a different story. Saunders has played most of his career in CF, where his solid-but-not-exceptional range has proven limiting. He has a career UZR/150 of -6 in CF, and earned a -19.7 in 627 innings there in 2013. But in LF his range plays much better, and in RF he has a career UZR/150 over 20 (admittedly, in only 807 innings).
So the bottom line is that he does not appear to be a viable CF anymore, except in an emergency, but he is more than passable in a corner OF position. That could be very valuable in 2016, with many expecting Jose Bautista to start transitioning to 1B or DH, and doubly so in 2017 and beyond if Jose is no longer playing OF (or is playing it for another team).
The injury knock
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The biggest knock against Saunders is his injury record. Michael missed 68 games in 2014 with injuries to his shoulder and oblique, prompting Jack Zduriencik to question whether Saunders might not be in the best possible condition. Mikey and his agent were – predictably – not amused, which led to Saunders being actively shopped in the 2014-15 offseason. And of course, Michael missed the entire 2015 season with his damaged knee. This has led many writers to question his durability, and to suggest that the Jays would be ill-advised to rely on him.
I am not sure that this is valid.
The 2015 sprinkler mishap was about as classic an example of a “freak injury” as can be imagined. I would be prepared to give him a mulligan on that one. 2014 is troubling, but previous years present a different picture. Saunders missed 23 games in 2013 (with 468 PAs) and 16 in 2012 (553 PAs). In a 2011 season split between the Mariners and AAA, he did not miss a game. So it is easy to see him as a player who will give a team ~500 PAs in ~140 games over the course of an average season. If he could do so with a batting line similar to his .273/.341/.450 from 2014, he could be very valuable. After all, in the last three years only three Blue Jays OF have played 140 games in a season: Jose Bautista (twice) and Kevin Pillar.
The bottom line? Saunders was originally intended to be the full-time left fielder in 2015. He could easily assume that role again in 2016, particularly with Troy Tulowitzki batting first. Alternatively, he could add value as a fourth outfielder who can play both corner OF positions and CF in a pinch, and who brings a 136 wRC+ against RHP. He could even be Jose Bautista’s replacement in RF, if the Jays start to transition Jose to 1B in 2016. But even before 2016 starts, having Saunders on the roster makes it possible to consider off-season trades. Could be for Saunders himself, or for Revere or Pompey, either of whom could bring a good trade price as natural CF with speed and lead-off potential. Not only do I see Saunders as worth keeping, but I could even see him as an extend-low candidate.