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Blue Jays and a Michael Saunders Extension: Are We There Yet?

May 11, 2016; San Francisco, CA, USA; Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Michael Saunders (21) is greeted in the dugout after his solo home run in the ninth inning tied up their MLB baseball game with the San Francisco Giants 4-4 at AT&T Park. Mandatory Credit: Lance Iversen-USA TODAY Sports
May 11, 2016; San Francisco, CA, USA; Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Michael Saunders (21) is greeted in the dugout after his solo home run in the ninth inning tied up their MLB baseball game with the San Francisco Giants 4-4 at AT&T Park. Mandatory Credit: Lance Iversen-USA TODAY Sports /
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The Blue Jays might be well advised to sign Michael Saunders to an extension, while they still can

Suppose I had told you, back in January, that on May 23rd one Blue Jay (qualified) would be leading the team in batting average, OBP and slugging?  Who would you have picked?  Josh Donaldson, the reigning MVP?  JB or EE?  Perhaps Tulo had returned to his 2014 form, or Russell Martin had exploded now that he no longer had to catch Dickey?

What if I told you that it would be Michael Saunders, with a .322 / .388 / .570 line and a 164 wRC+?

OK, granted, I am messing with you.  I am not suggesting that Saunders is a better hitter than Josh or Edwin or Jose, or that he will be able to maintain a .408 BABIP.

But what I *am* suggesting is that Mikey just might be for real, and that the Jays would be well advised to look into an extension.

I discussed the possibility of extending Mikey last May, and again in October, and the dynamics of the decision remain pretty much the same.  Saunders struggled at the plate early in his career, finally achieving average levels in 2012 and 2013 before breaking out in 2014 with a .273 / .341 / .450 line and a 126 wRC+.  So was 2014 an aberration or a breakthrough?  And Mikey has had poor injury luck, to the point where his ex-manager in Seattle suggested that a lack of conditioning might be to blame. Is Mikey damaged goods?

2015 was supposed to be the year to answer those questions.  But a mugging by a sprinkler head effectively cost Michael the full year.

Cue 2016.

What has changed?

First and foremost, there is Saunders’ performance.  Not only has he produced outstanding results, but he has yet to miss a game due to injury (though, to be fair, the Jays have given him several days off to ease his surgically repaired knee back into the game).  Only 39 games and 165 PAs, but it certainly looks a lot more like 2014 Saunders than 2012-13 Saunders.

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Second, there is the lack of progress with a Bautista extension.  In the offseson, the Jays were cautiously optimistic that they could bring Jose back in 2017 and beyond.  But things have gone south since then, with Jose making a non-negotiable offer before indicating that he *might* be willing to talk.  So the chances of their being an opening in right field – Mikey’s best defensive position – are looking increasingly good.

A third factor is the lack of depth in the upcoming free agent class.  Many writers project that the weak 2016-17 free agent class will prove a disincentive for players to sign extensions.  This could make a player like Saunders, perceived as high-risk but high-upside, that much more attractive.  The longer the Jays wait, the more time Mikey will have to prove himself and the closer and more attractive that free agent window could look.

A fourth factor is the status of the alternatives.  Going into 2016, it was hoped that Dalton Pompey would be beating down the door for a spot with the big-league club and that Anthony Alford would be exploding through the minor league system.  Instead both have been hurt, and Dalton’s 94 wRC+ (.074 ISO) at AAA, while disappointing, is still better than Alford’s 55 and .027 at A+.  Don’t get me wrong – they are both still strong prospects – but they might not be as close to The Game as some hoped.

The bottom line?

For a player like Saunders, there is always a tradeoff between certainty and price.  The longer the Jays wait to try to extend him, the more clarity they will have about the player they are signing.  But with that lower risk usually comes a higher price – and a higher chance that the player chooses instead to play free agent roulette.  Right around now might well be the “sweet spot” for the Jays to make a move on Mikey.

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