Before that pesky increase in the use of analytics and advanced metrics in baseball, the 2016 season of Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Michael Saunders would have seemed like the perfect way to enter free agency.
A glance at his counting stats shows 24 home runs and 57 RBI — both career highs — in 140 games from a left-handed bat that’s just turned 30. Despite the troubling 157 strikeouts, Saunders posted a respectable on-base percentage of .338 and an OPS of .815 en route to his first all-star appearance.
That’s a lot of check marks in a lot of boxes. Looking deeper, though, you find why Saunders is still on the market 10 days from Christmas.
Saunders’ performance regressed notably when the Blue Jays exited the all-star break in mid-July as the outfielder hit just .178 the rest of the way with a .638 OPS. His playoff performance was impactful, but the modern wealth of information has baseball teams looking to poke holes wherever possible. Such is smart business.
In the field, Saunders was valued at -11 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) with career-low ratings for his arm, range, and UZR/150 (a cumulative defensive metric). His defensive metrics were similar in 2012 and 2013, but those numbers came while playing primarily in centre-field and Saunders has not experienced the same boost in value that some do when transitioning to a corner spot.
This all led to Saunders posting a 1.4 fWAR, a mark that fell just short of his value in 2014, 2013, and 2012.
At the midseason point it was conceivable that Saunders would secure a deal of at least three years, perhaps even four, with an annual value above $10 million. That’s changed — his corner outfield-mate from 2016 can relate — but nonetheless, interest remains as multiple teams have been linked to the Canadian this month.
Rightfully so, because Saunders — like Tiger Woods’ putt on the 17th green at TPC Sawgrass in 2001 — is “better than most”.
Is Jose Bautista a likelier bet to produce great-but-limited value over the course of 162 games? Probably. But Saunders comes without a compensatory draft pick attached to signing him, and on a short-term deal, that makes things much more digestible for teams looking to add a mid-range free agent to their outfield.
Lost in this hole-poking is the possibility that Saunders is still made up more of his strengths than his flaws. Perhaps, after a career of struggling with injuries and then experiencing great struggle after great success in 2016, this is the exact time that Saunders strings together consistency. His power stroke is a threat for 20 home runs in any ball park and left-handed swingers already hold extra value in many lineups.
Due to the Blue Jays’ need and their existing relationship, Toronto and Saunders continue to be linked as both sides move through free agency without finding a match. If not the Blue Jays or a contender, however, Saunders does hold some real appeal to many low-to-mid range teams.
On a rebuilding roster with some extra money to spend, Saunders can round out an offence and give many rosters an upgrade from what they currently have in left or right field. Beyond that, if Saunders is able to string together several strong months of play, he becomes a valuable trading chip even if on a multi-year deal.
Then again, from Steve Pearce and Kendrys Morales this winter to J.A. Happ last off-season, the Blue Jays’ have shown little hesitation to enter the market at this level on players of this age who have recently provided reasons, however believable, for optimism.