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Phillies sign outfielder Michael Saunders

The Phils add a player who made the AL All-Star team a year ago.

Wild Card Game - Baltimore Orioles v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

The Phillies may not have signed Jose Bautista to a free agent deal, but they likely can thank him for helping make the team better anyway.

Former Toronto outfielder Michael Saunders has reportedly signed a free agent contract with the Phillies to become the team’s new right fielder. Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal reports it’s a one-year deal worth $9 million with a club option for 2018 that is worth $11 million. It can increase to $14 million with escalators, and guarantees a $1 million buyout if the Phils do not exercise the option. The team has not yet confirmed.

The left-handed slugger made his first All-Star team last year when he batted .253/.338/.478 with an .815 OPS, 24 HRs and 32 doubles. He put up an OPS+ of 115 and a wRC+ of 117, with an rWAR of 1.3 and an fWAR of 1.4.

Saunders’ signing with Philadelphia was likely spurred by reports Bautista is close to re-signing with Toronto, leaving no room for Saunders with the Jays.

His 2016 season was a tale of two halves. He was terrific before the All Star break, batting .298/.372/.551 with a .923 OPS and a wRC+ of 146. The second half was not as kind, when he hit .178/.282/.357 for an OPS of .638 and a wRC+ of 69.

But Saunders is a significant upgrade to the Phils’ outfield. Here was one of his better days last season, against the Baltimore Orioles last June, when he blasted three homers at Camden Yards.

The addition of Saunders gives the Phillies a lineup (at least against right-handers) next year that looks something like this.

Phillies 2017 Lineup

Name Position AVG OBP SLG HR wRC+ fWAR
Name Position AVG OBP SLG HR wRC+ fWAR
Odubel Herrera CF 0.286 0.361 0.42 15 110 3.8
Cesar Hernandez 2B 0.294 0.371 0.393 6 108 4.4
Michael Saunders RF 0.253 0.338 0.478 24 117 1.4
Maikel Franco 3B 0.255 0.306 0.427 25 92 1.4
Howie Kendrick LF 0.255 0.326 0.366 8 91 0.9
Tommy Joseph 1B 0.257 0.308 0.505 21 113 0.9
Cameron Rupp C 0.252 0.303 0.447 16 99 1.6
Freddy Galvis SS 0.241 0.274 0.399 20 74 2.4

Saunders helps balance a lineup that was right-handed heavy, and culminates the team’s off-season mission to upgrade the worst corner outfield in baseball. Last year their left fielders had a combined fWAR of -3.6. The Rockies were next closest at -1.1. Their right fielders weren’t quite as brutal but still had an fWAR of -0.2, which was 28th out of 30 MLB teams.

Gone is Peter Bourjos, Jimmy Paredes, David Lough, Cedric Hunter and Tyler Goeddel. In are Saunders and Howie Kendrick. And while that may not be a division-winning upgrade, it’s much better.

The good news is that the signing of Saunders does not cost the Phillies their second round pick next year, nor the slot money that goes with it. More good news is that Saunders also does not have extreme platoon splits.

In fact, he actually featured reverse splits last season when he batted .275/.358/.569 for a .927 OPS and a wRC+ of 147 against southpaws and .247/.332/.451 with a .783 OPS and a wRC+ of 108 against righties. He did hit more bombs (16) against right-handers than left-handers (8), though.

And even more good news is that Saunders gives the Phils one more potential trade asset at the deadline this July. He’s still pretty young, just 29, so if things work out and the Phils’ outfield prospects don’t perform well, it’s possible he could stick around for a while longer, too.

Saunders does create a potential logjam in the outfield for the Phillies. Kendrick, Herrera and Saunders are expected to be the starters, with Aaron Altherr now likely looking at a bench role. The exciting but oft-injured Roman Quinn will probably start the season in AAA (man, that Lehigh Valley team is going to be some fun to watch!), with Dylan Cozens and Nick Williams also fighting for a spot on the big league roster sometime late in 2017 or early 2018.

What happens if Quinn, Cozens and Williams all play well enough to deserve a call-up? I don’t know, but it’s a terrific problem to have! It’s also not something the Phils need to worry about right now, and it allows time for the kids to develop a bit more, something all three need.

One potential issue regarding Saunders is his health. The talented outfielder played a career-high 140 games last season, only the fourth time in eight years he’s managed to play at least 100. In 2015 he only suited up for nine games because of a meniscus tear in his knee and he’s battled other various nagging injuries throughout his career.

Another issue is that, like the rest of the Phils’ roster, Saunders strikes out a ton, whiffing in a career-high 28.1% of his plate appearances last season. And he is not a good defender, either, worth -6 defensive runs saved (DRS) in left field and -5 DRS in right, for a total of -11 DRS in the outfield last year. Those numbers are right in line with his career norms.

Nevertheless, the addition of Saunders makes the Phillies a more competent and complete team in 2017. It potentially adds 2-3 wins to their ledger, which should shut up the “Phils are always tanking” crowd.

That is beautiful. And should returning members of the offense improve from last year (Franco, Rupp, Joseph, Galvis), the Phillies could potentially feature a half-decent lineup most days.

Again, this doesn’t make the Phils a playoff team unless every single possible thing goes way better than anyone could have imagined. But it certainly makes life harder on the Washington Nationals and New York Mets this year, and provides an offensive upgrade to a squad that still needed it.