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Toronto Blue Jays 2016 season preview: Michael Saunders

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Blue Jays left-fielder Michael Saunders is seeing opportunity knock in 2016, as he and fellow Canadian Dalton Pompey will battle to replace Ben Revere

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Michael Saunders comes in to the 2016 season in much different position than he expected a year ago. For those who’ve forgotten, the Blue Jays traded J.A. Happ (who has since returned as a free agent) for Saunders just last offseason, hoping he would take over for the departed Melky Cabrera.

Unfortunately, Saunders had a freak accident, stepping on a sprinkler during spring training and tearing up his knee in process. After a surgery and attempt to return early, Saunders’ knee never proved healthy enough to see the field again in 2015.

Now healthy, Saunders agreed to a 1 year, 2.9 million dollar deal avoiding arbitration, and will battle Dalton Pompey (and possibly others), for the starting job in left field.

2015 Production Recap

As stated above, Saunders was hurt in spring training and missed roughly the first month of the 2015 season before attempting to return to the field. When his knee wouldn’t cooperate, Saunders was forced to shut it down and focus on returning to the Blue Jays in 2016.

All told, Saunders was only able to appear in 9 games, batting .194 in 36 plate appearances. In 2014 with the Seattle Mariners, Saunders hit .273/.341/.450 in another injury shortened season of 78 games and 231 at bats. Obviously, staying on the field will be among his main goals for the 2016 season.

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2016 Role and Steamer Projection

The now 29-year-old outfielder will enter spring training knowing that he isn’t guaranteed a starting job. That said, just a few weeks ago before the trade of Ben Revere, Saunders was looking at a battle for a bench spot on the roster.

With Revere’s departure, Saunders will most likely have to beat out fellow Canadian Dalton Pompey to earn the starting spot. Both players come with potential upside and reason for concern, but Saunders does have the leg up in the experience department. If Saunders ends up as a bench piece, he’ll serve as valuable depth to rest the other outfielders, and insurance in case the young Pompey falters as a starter.

In the event the Saunders earns the starting spot, there are a variety of ways his role could play out with the team. With the aforementioned departure of Ben Revere, who also occupied the lead off spot, the Blue Jays are in need of a table setter. While not an ideal candidate, Saunders is being discussed as a possibility, and may end up getting a shot in the role. His .341 OBP in 2014 isn’t bad by any means, but for his career it sits at a much less impressive .301. It’s more likely that Saunders will serve as a left handed bat in the lower third of the lineup.

Steamer projects Saunders for only 298 AB’s, perhaps because of his unsure status as a starter, hitting for a line of .246/.324/.411 with 8 HR’s and 35 RBI. Saunders will have to prove that he can stay healthy before more optimism will return around his production.

Related Story: 2016 Season Preview: Justin Smoak

What could go wrong?

Well….. for starters, Saunders has only managed 262 AB’s over the last two seasons combined, so there’s reason to believe he could end up on the DL again in 2016. Although he has always had great potential, Saunders hasn’t truly been able to put it all together yet as a professional with consistency, and the time away from the batter’s box isn’t exactly going to help.

He also couldn’t keep the swelling down with his injured knee as he attempted comebacks in 2015, and potentially could struggle with the knee or other related issues. Although Saunders reports that he’s feeling near 100%, there’s also no telling that the knee will allow him to perform the way he did prior to the injury as well. There are a lot of question marks around what Saunders may be able to provide, whether he can stay healthy or not.

What could go right?

There’s a reason the Blue Jays traded J.A. Happ to the Mariners for the young outfielder and allowed Melky Cabrera to leave via free agency despite his importance in the lineup. When healthy, Saunders has shown that he can play above average defence, hit for power from the left side, and provide speed on the bases.

In his best season, Saunders slashed a line of .247/.306/.432 with 19 HR’s and 21 stolen bases over 139 games. Bringing him out of the unforgiving Safeco field in Seattle, and to the hitter friendly Rogers Centre gave management reason to believe he could replicate and/or even improve on those numbers.

Now healthy, it’s entirely possible that Saunders could do just that in Toronto. If he wins the starting job in left field, it’s likely that he’ll hit in a low-pressure spot near the bottom of the order (likely 7th or 8th), and have plenty of opportunity for RBI’s hitting below a loaded part of the order. In the unlikely event that he’s asked to lead off, Saunders should see a plethora of fastballs, and be given every opportunity to show what he’s capable of. In a dream scenario, Saunders has the tools and could be a 20-20 candidate, as has been the upside throughout his career.

Next: Eric Wedge hired as player development advisor

The Bottom Line

2016 is a very important season for the career of Michael Saunders. While he’s only 29 and has time to turn his career around, his injury history and inability to harness his potential has him battling for a starting job, when he should have that part locked down at this point in his career given his talent.

If he can stay healthy, I actually expect Saunders to have a career season playing in his home country and a much more friendly park for hitters. Whether batting at the top of the order, or the the bottom third, Saunders won’t be a focal point of the offence and should have every opportunity to be a quiet, but crucial contributor.

The big IF: Can he find a way to stay on the field?

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