Defending the Defensible Saunders

Jay Yencich · September 26, 2013 at 6:30 am · Filed Under Mariners 

A few days ago and already a few months late, the Mariners made the announcement that Joe Saunders would not be starting another game this season. A relief to me at least, with one fewer game that I purposefully ignore, and a sure sign that we’ve made up some ground since the dog days of him, Harang, and Bonderman as 60% of the starting five. Ryan Divish made a tweet a few weeks ago to the effect of the Mariners going thirty seconds without being on the wrong side of things, with Joe giving up a leadoff home run on the first pitch. It felt about in line with my own sentiments. Joe Saunders has been terrible. Everyone who’s been paying attention knows that. Some people have not been paying attention partly because of it.

There’s also another Saunders we have, the more Canadian one, whom a lot of people probably regard as being also terrible this year. Because the Mariners have been awful for many years, and because Michael Saunders was a homegrown, young, and somewhat local player who had also been awful for many years, everyone started to rally around him when he started to turn in what was only an average offensive performance last season. Remember all those jokes we made about rubber bands and Josh Bard’s brother and how we were going to hire them to be our hitting coach? It seems like only a year ago.

Trouble is that the Mariners field mentality for under the current field staff has been to play though any injury to the detriment of, I don’t know, everything. Just rub some dirt on it, you’ll be fine. Hultzen probably went to the team’s doctors and they told him there wasn’t enough dirt in his shoulder. And he was all like “that’s not a real diagnosis!” and they were all like “you didn’t go to med school, you only had that mysterious story universally reported about millions of dollars of inheritance money if you did, which was totally a lie.” Why, Michael Morse rubbed some dirt on that busted finger of his and hell, he’s hit more home runs since than he did before. Wait, he’s actually hit fewer? And with almost twice as many plate appearances? Criminy.

Michael Saunders probably got sucked into that mentality too. Back in April, when there were still hopes of not finishing with a protected pick, Saunders smashed into an outfield wall and busted himself up but good. Eighteen days later, he was back on the field for the Mariners after a short rehab in Tacoma, playing at his presumably not-best. Up through the end of the first half, he had a 82 wRC+ and looked as bad as he’d previously been all these years. A number of people jumped up and declared his 2012 season to be not steps in the right direction, but wholly a mirage, and started to float the idea of him as a redundant piece and a potential non-tender candidate.

Others of us, who listen to games for want of evening radio programming, have remembered that he was also hurt and came back way too quickly. Let’s look at some numbers for a moment.

2012 Saunders: 553 PA, .246/.306/.432, 7.8% BB, 23.9% K, 108 wRC+
2013 Saunders (1H): 265 PA, .225/.303/.364, 10.6% BB, 26.8% K, 82 wRC+
2013 Saunders (2H): 195 PA, .263/.364/.461, 13.3% BB, 22.6% K, 128 wRC+

To give some context to this, Saunders’ first half wRC+ over the course of a season would put him in the company of Alexei Ramirez and the surprisingly not-good Elvis Andrus of late. Erick Aybar and Jose Altuve would have produced more. His second half similarly stretched would land him around the 34th highest wRC+ in baseball and would have him keeping company with guys like Justin Upton, Evan Longoria, and Prince Fielder (really?), and better than Chase Utley, Jason Kipnis, and various others. I’m not cherry-picking numbers either; month-to-month in the second half, his wRC+ has been 141 in July, 126 in August, and now 129 in September after last night’s home run/walk combo. And that walk rate, extended to the length of this season, would land eighth for all of baseball, sandwiched between Miguel Cabrera and Dexter Fowler. Boy howdy.

The Good Saunders is looking at arbitration for the first time this offseason, which is expected him to make him marginally more expensive. But we’re also expecting to see Endy Chavez and Franklin Gutierrez on the outs, along with Raul if we have enough sense [we probably don’t]. There are only so many internal options after that, and only so many players on the free agent market that are going to be worth pursuing.

Michael Saunders isn’t a great player or anything. His defense has some flaws, he’s had some trouble with lefties this season, and he really doesn’t seem like he uses his speed as much as he could. But he could be a good player, reasonably priced. Given that his second half has trumped even his previous breakout, I think that it stands to reason that he should be given his opportunities with the Mariners next season and we can see where things go from there.


41 Responses to “Defending the Defensible Saunders”

  1. ripperlv on September 26th, 2013 7:04 am

    Okay, I’ll bite, Saunders at the of the corners. Does Ackley, Almonte, Ibanez still have jobs next season? If they do we are headed for a repeat of this season. I doubt any of these guys should be a regular, and that Almonte has the greatest upside.

  2. Longgeorge1 on September 26th, 2013 7:07 am

    I really don’t have any insight into the M’s staff in dealing with injuries. They shut Felix right down. They shut Hultzen right down. I did a little research on rotator cuff and labrum injuries and the consensus was that they were difficult to diagnose. If you are not sure where the injury is, just to go wandering around a shoulder with a scalpel would probably create more damage then exists from the injury. I also read that rotator and labrum injuries can present very similar symptoms. Finally if it is a small labrum tear they can be very difficult to find, sometimes they are not visible by either MRI or CT. I do know from my own surgeries to correct injuries is that the injury is fixed pretty fast but recovering from the surgery is what takes the time. With Morse and Saunders injuries I haven’t a clue. The results could lead one to believe they came back too soon, but whose decision that was I don’t know.

  3. DarkKnight1680 on September 26th, 2013 7:52 am

    Condor has looked terrific in the second half, despite getting jerked around by Wedge and his interim lackey. Almonte has been terrific, Ackley has shown improvement, and Ibanez needs to be shown the door.

    Honestly, if Ibanez is on this team next year I’ll probably stop watching for a year.

  4. Mariner Melee on September 26th, 2013 8:10 am

    With the recent extension of Z, and the “Win or Else” tag attached to it, I find it moderately unlikely that Saunders has a job on this team next season.

    With names such as Choo, Ellsbury, Cruz, and Beltran on the market and a GM with his job on the line…one or more of those players have a high possiblity of having some serious cash thrown their way by Seattle. Signing more than one of these options leaves Saunders without a job and without options.

    I don’t like it, and I’ll hate this organization for it, but there remains the possibility that Saunders won’t play for us next season. Their are just too many false “upgrades” for Zduriencik to buy.

  5. Sportszilla on September 26th, 2013 8:38 am

    As I recall, the other reason Saunders rushed/was rushed back from injury was because our brilliant GM had assembled an Opening Day roster that had only two players even remotely capable of playing centerfield: Saunders and the perpetually injured Franklin Gutierrez. Once Guti got hurt, and then Saunders did, there were basically no options besides the old and slow Jason Bay or the batless Endy Chavez. Hence the haste in getting Saunders back on the field.

  6. terryoftacoma on September 26th, 2013 8:50 am

    There is a myth growing out there. The first part of that is that the decisions made by Z this year were because he was trying to protect his job. Come to find out, he had already been extended for next year(and perhaps beyond that). Now the ground work is being layed for that myth to continue for this year.

    The simple fact is that Z has made bad(in my opinion) decisions and we are afraid he will continue to make bad decisions. That’s a good fear to have. I don’t however think he throw alot of FA money about. He’ll talk or hint but in the end he’ll buy low and hope to catch lightning in a bottle.

    I look for Saunders to still be on this team.

  7. Eastside Crank on September 26th, 2013 9:31 am

    Considering that the Mariners would probably have been a .500 club this year with “league average” outfielders this is the most encouraging news I have seen. If the Mariners start the winter with 3 outfielders in place (Almonte, Ackley, Saunders) then the shopping list for the off-season becomes much more tenable.

  8. msfanmike on September 26th, 2013 10:23 am

    Saunders certainly looks the part of an MLB player, but he just hasn’t quite lived up to what we want him to be. At least not yet. He certainly appears capable of being a .270 hitter with 20 HR’s, 30 SB’s a lower strikeout rate, a higher OBP etc. etc.

    If the organizaiton is fortunate and Saunders has his best “career years” over the next 3 seasons, I am all in. If we are going to see more of the same from him – the organization is in a bit of a bind.

    Saunders doesn’t really profile as either a CF or a corner OF, but he can play good defense and he can handle CF adequately. Between him, Ackley and Almonte – the team can cover CF … and go searching for better (much better) players in the corner OF positions. It seems to be kind of a “meh” settling point though, because even after all this time, nobody is yet quite sure what type of players Saunders and Ackly are, or will be in the future. Ackley appears destined for some sort of ‘utility’ role and with a mediocre bat.

    Saunders has so many holes in his swing (areas of perpetual swing and miss) that he is probably never going to be what we want him to be, but he can certainly be better (on average) than what he has been.

    For now, I would consider Saundres to be a 4th OF’er and go in search of better options. If Saunders plays well next Spring and earns a starting job – fine/great/super! Let him play. If not, let him be the 4th/5th OF’er.

    There is no way he shouldn’t be in the mix, though.

  9. HighBrie on September 26th, 2013 10:49 am

    I think Saunders should be an easy call for the Mariners. My questions include: Is Gutierrez worth a roster spot and what would he cost? Who in the Mariner minor league system could be counted on to contribute in the next 1-2 years at the major league level (outfielders specifically)? And will Ellsbury take the Mariners money?

    I guess it would be worth asking if there are any players that would be valuable in trade (e.g. Granderson) for the M’s- but I tend to think that is a costly route for the M’s to take.

  10. Skim on September 26th, 2013 10:58 am

    Would Guti accept a reasonable contract with incentives based on playing time and/or DL days? If so, I’d like to see the team keep Guti and Saunders — maybe a platoon, but more likely figure on Guti, Saunders, Almonte, and an OF acquisition, running Ackley out there from time to time. Maybe two OF acquisitions, if you’re willing to split MI time between Miller, Franklin, and Ackley.

  11. Westside guy on September 26th, 2013 11:05 am

    Logan Davis took a look at players with similar injuries over at LL a while ago, and found evidence that it takes a couple months to come back from these particular sorts of injuries. Condor’s continued above-average performance I. The six weeks since he wrote that would lend credence to the idea that Jay is spot-on.

    Many of you know I’ve been a Saunders fan even back int he bad old days, so you know I’m not impartial in this – but I really hope the team realizes his potential. If they dump him, I can see yet another round of “why do they always get better when they leave” laments after he settles in to a .280/.350/.475 groove for several years.

  12. Westside guy on September 26th, 2013 11:07 am

    P.S. It’s great to see a an article from Jay!

    P.P.S. Editing comments sucks on this site – at least from an iOS device.

  13. diderot on September 26th, 2013 11:13 am

    Overall a good piece, but I’m with Longgeorge…

    “Hultzen probably went to the team’s doctors and they told him there wasn’t enough dirt in his shoulder.”

    I realize you’re trying very hard to be clever, but isn’t accusing the medical staff of malpractice a little over the top?

  14. Westside guy on September 26th, 2013 11:16 am

    Boy, some people apparently just don’t grok hyperbole. 😉

  15. Jay Yencich on September 26th, 2013 11:18 am

    To answer a few floating questions here:

    * I like Almonte. But when a player more than doubles their previous HR high in a single season, in which they’re mostly in the PCL, one starts to wonder.
    * There are free agent hitters on the market. Boras is trying to get Choo ~$100 million. I like Choo, but I don’t “like” like Choo at that price, particularly when he’s been awful against southpaws this season (no dingers). Ellsbury might be worth a look, but I don’t think he’s going to give us a discount and if we’re paying him like he’s been doing his 2011 campaign more often than once, that’s not good for any of us. The dearth of good FA options may price certain outfielders to “unreasonable” in short order.
    * Guti could come back, but I get the impression that not everyone among the decision-makers likes Guti. It may be partially contingent on those considerations before we even get to talking about whether or not he’d be willing to come back at a lesser price.
    * I’m willing to go with Miller/Franklin for now, but one has to entertain the possibility that either will struggle deeply at some point next year, which might mean Ackley is moved back to the middle infield. We shouldn’t act like either the infield or outfield are set.

    I realize you’re trying very hard to be clever, but isn’t accusing the medical staff of malpractice a little over the top?


  16. mikethomas22 on September 26th, 2013 11:18 am

    Looking forward to next year, we don’t really have any outfielders, so with Saunders the best of a bad lot, I would expect Saunders to be a starting outfielder next year. I know Ibanez says he wants to come back, but he’s an atrocious defender, and he should only be brought back as a full time DH.

    Speaking of defense, does anyone know how Smoak and Morales’ UZR all of a sudden plummeted? Smoak -14 and Morales -16? Smoak was around even all year and Morales has hardly even played 1st this year.

  17. borris_g on September 26th, 2013 11:24 am

    As Westside, I always believed in Saunders and really hope that he can show next season what he is really worth, but I don’t see him as high as .280/.350/.475. I believe something along the .270/.340/.450 is closer, not much difference, just not an OPS over 800.

    Acley, Saunders and one good FA would be a nice starting OF, still think Ackley will be good next year.

  18. maqman on September 26th, 2013 11:46 am

    Jay always great to read your stuff. Keep Saunders, resign Guti on incentives only, don’t count on Almonte yet, look at Granderson, Pence, Beltran, Byrd and Cruz in addition to Ellsbury and Choo – Boras is looking for 9 figures on both of them, they ain’t worth it. Sign Tanaka and Abreu. The M’s have a lot of payroll space, it’s time to spend! I’m okay with Ackley.

  19. nwade on September 26th, 2013 11:48 am

    “…I know Ibanez says he wants to come back, but he’s an atrocious defender, and he should only be brought back as **LATE-INNING PINCH-HITTER AND BENCH-WARMER**”

    -there, fixed that for ya!
    [wish we had a strikethrough font-option here, BTW]

  20. mikethomas22 on September 26th, 2013 11:52 am

    If we had a good enough offense, I would agree about pinch hitter, but I don’t think we should offer Morales a qualifying offer, so unless we can get someone better, Ibanez might be the best option at DH next year.

  21. Westside guy on September 26th, 2013 11:57 am

    Not that this is new or anything, but – I didn’t have a problem with the Raul signing in isolation… it was that Zduriencik basically signed four different iterations of the same player, so to speak.

    I believe I’ll have the same reaction to the inevitable Raul signing for 2014. On its own, it’s probably at least marginally defensible (assuming he’s mainly used as a DH, as others have said).

  22. mikethomas22 on September 26th, 2013 11:59 am

    I agree completely. I don’t think we should offer Morales a qualifying offer, but if we do, we can absolutely not sign Ibanez, because even if the plan is he will be a pinch hitter/veteran presence, he will end up in the field.

  23. diderot on September 26th, 2013 12:00 pm


    Yeah, I understood, and I really like your work.
    But that just seemed ill-advised.

  24. mearls on September 26th, 2013 12:18 pm

    Saunders strike me as a poster child for this organization’s problems:

    He’s a young player with potential being penciled in to perform in the upper half of that potential, with no reasonable fall back plan in sight.

  25. Paul L on September 26th, 2013 12:40 pm

    I think the problem is obvious: we have a roster full of players who, if we had a great team around them, would be perfectly fine in and of themselves.

    If we had a great team, we wouldn’t have a huge problem with sticking Brendan Ryan in the 9 spot and putting up with his lack of production.

    If we had a great team, we could afford to have Smoak hitting 7th.

    If we had a great team, no one would be talking about whether to keep Saunders because he’d be seen as a perfectly serviceable player. A guy who starts a bit, serves as a fourth outfielder and pinch hitter, etc.

    The problem is, the entire roster is made up of “serviceable” guys (at best). And in order to build a great team, you have to have:

    – money
    – the willingness to spend it
    – available talent on the market (and in your organization if trading)
    – ability to discern what available talent is worth spending the money (and/or talent) on

    Seems to me that we only have the first two of the above going into this offseason, so I don’t see how we improve if we’re sticking with the same guys making the decisions.

  26. Paul B on September 26th, 2013 1:28 pm

    Guys like Saunders, Jaso and Wells are players Wedge doesn’t like much. He prefers dingers, like Raul and Olivo provide.

  27. Longgeorge1 on September 26th, 2013 3:09 pm

    I appreciate humor as much as the next guy BUT the opinion expressed was that the M’s have been forcing injured players to take the field and ignoring the seriousness of the injury. I think in Morse’s case he probably played in pain but it may well have been his decision. Saunders was playing everyday in AAA (poorly yes) and the risk of further injury probably had passed. If Guti had been healthy he might of had more time but to suggest that the M’s are ignoring injuries even using a tongue in cheek manner is over the top.

  28. Longgeorge1 on September 26th, 2013 3:19 pm

    Paul B – The front office had traded for Montero and he was going to play. In hindsight a real bad. Wells is not a major leaguer, he seems likeable and I feel bad for him. About three other teams gave him a look and came to the same conclusion. Saunders is still here and will get another look next year despite overall erratic play. Raul was at least available everyday unlike Guti, Saunders and Morse. I don’t think any one planned on him playing as much OF as he did and it was mostly due to injuries and Ted Williams. Olivo was let go I don’t see how you could call him a favored son.

  29. Cresswell on September 26th, 2013 5:28 pm

    Is Saunders hurt by Safeco? I like the player he is right now, but everyone on this team is so streaky.

    Love the idea of Choo – about the only player in the league who walks and doesn’t strike out much; what is it with the Ks?? Is there not one hitting coach teaching how to make contact?

    P.S. If Colon and Sanchez give up 2 or 3 runs in the next couple of days, then Iwakuma wins ERA title.

  30. Longgeorge1 on September 26th, 2013 5:53 pm

    I loved the idea of Choo until I checked all his numbers. His dWAR is -1.9. AS a reference point Raul’s dWAR is -2.2. I will agree that stats can be misleading and maybe someone can explain this Raulesque defensive number, but it worries me. The best explanation I have for all the K’s is that hitters are being coached to go deeper in counts and once you get to strike two, shit can happen. The fact that every guy in the pen has got 97 in his pocket doesn’t help either. I hope Colon and Sanchez get BLASTED!

  31. Cresswell on September 26th, 2013 7:25 pm

    I don’t think of myself as a stats newb, but I shake my head at the DWAR numbers. People you KNOW are good – you can see them make plays – have lousy numbers. I agree that particular defensive number gave me pause, but as with you Longger … what does he do that hurts his final stats?

  32. stevemotivateir on September 26th, 2013 7:27 pm

    Nice to see a post from Jay. We’ve missed ya!

    I assumed Saunders was a lock for next season, given the other internal options. But is it feasible we could see three or four names for the outfield that weren’t in the organization last year?

    Totally agree that neither the infield or outfield is set. I wouldn’t even be surprised if Smoak went away.

  33. Eastside Crank on September 26th, 2013 7:31 pm

    Choo has been standing out in center field this year. “Playing” would imply that he had a positive impact on the position. He has been truly awful. He is probably better suited to DH and part-time right field. Also, he only hits RH pitching and LH pitchers own him. There is no way he would be worth the money the Mariners would need to pay him.

  34. Hunter S. Thompson on September 26th, 2013 8:52 pm

    Choo has almost the same rating as Raul, because he’s an average or worse corner outfielder playing center, you stick him in RF or LF and his DWAR would probally be close to zero.
    He’s playing out of position, just like Raul, accept Raul’s position is DH.

  35. borris_g on September 27th, 2013 8:02 am

    Nice article at LL by Logan that has a part about Saunders and how he should be considered as a good corner OF for next season M’s.

  36. Westside guy on September 27th, 2013 8:39 am

    ^ from now on, when Saunders does something great, it’s

    Caw Caw!

  37. Cresswell on September 27th, 2013 9:57 am

    .458 OBA v RHP mitigates a lot of sins.

  38. Mathball on September 27th, 2013 10:20 am

    I would be okay with abit of an overpay of Ellsbury because of Saunders. With Ellsbury in CF and Saunders in RF we improve two positions over this year.

  39. MrZDevotee on September 27th, 2013 4:07 pm

    I’m not sold on Almonte yet, and Guty is just too fragile, if nothing else he takes up space in simply PLANNING for the season… “If Guty is alive we can do this… But most likely we need to do THIS instead…”

    Julio Morban is a long shot to take over the role Saunders had until last year (ie, likeable skillset but probably not ready)…

    Ackley has super-utility written all over him (although I have a sneaky suspicion he returns to 2nd base and Franklin becomes our utility infielder– because between Franklin and Ackley we can cover 1st, 2nd, SS and 3rd)…

    So essentially I think we’re looking at Saunders, plus two free agent acquisitions as the starting OF, and Morban and Almonte competing for 4th OF/Saunders platoon buddy.

    That would leave us a backup C to acquire.

    This team could come together pretty quickly if those 2 free agent outfielders have decent OBP, can play avg+ defense, and offer a bit of speed.

    Suddenly we’d have some versatility/depth with Triunfel and either Morban or Almonte in AAA… Ackley as 2B and 1B/OF backup… Franklin as 2B, and SS/3B backup.

    Miller (SS)
    Seager (3B)
    Choo (RF)
    Montero (DH)
    Ellsbury (CF)
    Smoak (1B)
    Saunders (LF)
    Zunino (C)
    Ackley (2B)

    Bench: Morban, Franklin, Ibanez

    **Obviously Choo and Ellsbury are placeholders– although in a dream scenario we could sign both**

    **And unlike just about every acquisition from last season, the only “sure hope he figures it out” that worries me is Montero– but he still deserves a chance to approach a season with HITTING as his only concern**

  40. SonOfZavaras on September 27th, 2013 5:04 pm

    Boy, some people apparently just don’t grok hyperbole,

    I wanna learn how to grok something. That sounds like fun!

  41. SonOfZavaras on September 27th, 2013 5:05 pm

    BTW, nice article Jay. You’ve been missed!

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.