At the 2016 MLB All-Star break, it looked like the Blue Jays had a good problem on their hands with left-fielder Michael Saunders.
The Canadian was at full health after a sprinkler head stole his 2015 season and was playing the best baseball of his career. The Blue Jays were getting elite-level offence from a corner outfielder for a fraction of the cost, and if they were unable to re-sign him at year’s end, then they would surely benefit from him declining a qualifying offer to send a draft pick Toronto’s way.
Saunders’ production fell off the table in the second half, however, making the qualifying offer an unideal move for both sides involved.
After putting together a .923 OPS with 16 home runs in his first 82 games before the July break, Saunders saw his OPS plummet to .638 over his last 58 games. With a .178 batting average over that period and a high strikeout rate, Saunders quickly lowered his season numbers back towards his career averages. By the end of the season Ezequiel Carrera had moved past Saunders as a more trusted outfield option.
A one-year, $17.2 million deal would be a significant commitment from the Blue Jays, especially with Josh Donaldson, Troy Tulowitzki, and Russell Martin all earning $17 million or more in 2017. If Toronto is to commit such a high salary to one player this offseason, they would surely prefer that deal comes with a higher degree of certainty or multiple years.
There is appeal in Saunders being a left-handed bat in a lineup desperate for more, but his 157 strikeouts in 2016 — far and away a career high — are exactly what this Blue Jays lineup needs to get away from.
From Saunders’ side, the qualifying offer could also be a risky proposition. He would certainly be a candidate to accept the one-year deal, but if he chose to decline and enter free agency, Saunders is exactly the type of player that is hurt by a compensatory draft pick being attached to him.
If a mid-level team were looking to sign Saunders for, say, a three-year deal worth $30+ million, giving up a valuable draft pick alongside that deal makes it far less appetizing. In that situation, teams can begin to lower their offers to offset the draft choice and Saunders is the one who loses out. By absolutely no fault of his own, either, with is rather unfair to a player who fought back from such an unfortunate injury one year ago.
Of course, Saunders could always return to the Blue Jays on a smaller deal. With Jose Bautista vacating right field, two starting jobs will be available with Carrera, Melvin Upton Jr., and Dalton Pompey in competition.