Blue Jays: Michael Saunders’ left knee the key in 2016


Blue Jays outfielder Michael Saunders will battle with the young Dalton Pompey for left field duties, but the health of his knee could decide that competition early

Michael Saunders versus Dalton Pompey. Hand-in-hand with the decision on Aaron Sanchez‘s role, and barring further movement, the Blue Jays will have two hot-button topics entering Spring Training.

While the young Pompey and Sanchez need simply to consistently prove their worth within their given roles, the Canadian Saunders will be battling the left knee injury that caused him to miss nearly all of 2015.

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Speaking with Richard Griffin of The Star at the Team Canada banquet on Saturday, Saunders expressed optimism that he would be able to compete without issue. “We’re taking this day-by-day and making sure that I’m ready to go. Going into spring training, you always have to feel like you’re competing for a job. Whether or not the (Revere) trade went down, I was going to go to spring training competing for a job in left field. My mindset hasn’t changed despite the trade.”

The decision to have part of his meniscus removed to expedite his return timetable in 2015 could limit him through the remainder of his career, however. That’s Toronto’s worry entering the coming year, that even if Saunders outright wins the job, his left knee will not hold up to the daily wear and tear of patrolling the outfield.

‘Soreness’ is the word to watch out for with Saunders over the coming months, but perhaps the addition of Toronto’s new director of high performance Angus Mugford and the increased medical attention will help to buoy his health.

The recency bias that comes with professional sports leaves an athlete largely forgotten if they miss an entire season, but Saunders brings legitimate 2.0+ WAR potential to the table in a semi-regular role. After posting exactly 2.0 WAR in just 78 games for the Mariners in 2014, his past three seasons (cumulative 349 games) have produced a 5.9 WAR.

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He’s a different animal than Revere in left field (with a much stronger arm), but at the very least, does not represent a downgrade of any sort. He also comes with 15+ stolen base potential in a regular role, but again, all of these hinge on us not hearing the word ‘soreness’ by mid-June.

Another wrench in the gears is the strong possibility that the Blue Jays will take a “starter or AAA” approach with Dalton Pompey, choosing not to leave him fighting for scraps and pinch-run duties off the bench. I’d be tempted to explore a timeshare between the two with Saunders seeing the odd look at DH if his bat is hot, but that involves a lot of moving parts. Perhaps he relieves Jose Bautista in right field, who then DH’s while Edwin Encarnacion spends a day in the field, but again..

So while Saunders has ‘done it’ at the MLB level, something Pompey can’t lay claim to, he needs to clear a significant hurdle before even entering the head-to-head competition with the younger switch-hitter. Toronto’s medical staff’s success with injury management has inspired some chatter over the past year, in a good way, and this will prove to be a great test of that.