Should he stay healthy for the last couple of weeks of spring training, Michael Saunders helps to confirm one thing: the Phillies won’t have to start someone like Cedric Hunter in the outfield on Opening Day.
Despite his red-hot 2016 spring, Hunter never was the answer the Phillies were looking for at the dish, and his quick flameout and eventual trip to the minors ended up being permanent. General Manager Matt Klentak and company didn’t want to go into the 2017 season with that kind of question mark in the outfield as Nick Williams Watch (And perhaps Dylan Cozens Watch, too) takes shape.
Enter Michael Saunders, the ex-Blue Jay who signed a one-year, $9 million deal with the Phillies, a deal that includes a club option for 2018. Yes, it was a wait-and-see approach when it came to finding that final outfield piece, seeing that the Phillies didn’t finalize things with Saunders until mid-January, but it was the right approach when it came to this team’s specific wants and needs for 2017.
Sure, the Phillies could have waited even longer to see if Brandon Moss’ price would have come down, or approached the Mets about a Jay Bruce trade (yuck), but signing Saunders seemed like a logical fit from the get-go of the off-season, maybe even as far back as October or November.
Saunders will likely slot into the 5th spot in the lineup for Pete Mackanin, in an effort to provide some sort of protection for Maikel Franco, though he could bat further down in the order against lefties if Mackanin wants Tommy Joseph to bat 5th against them. There’s some flexibility available there.
There probably won’t be much flexibility position-wise, though. Saunders will be the Phillies’ right fielder, with Howie Kendrick in left and Odubel Herrera in center. Saunders did play 106 games in left field for the Blue Jays last season, with 22 appearances in right field. The Phillies will be asking him to play right field, where advanced numbers say he struggled mightily in 2016.
The numbers also say he struggled in left, which could be due in part to range and mobility issues following knee troubles in 2015, though that’s hard to confirm. Those knee troubles stemmed from a freak injury in the spring of 2015, when he stepped on a sprinkler head while chasing a ball at the Blue Jays’ training facility. Saunders had surgery to repair a torn meniscus in February of that year, but a bone bruise developed shortly thereafter, and he appeared in just 9 games for Toronto in 2015.
Last year would prove to be a different story, at least for a good chunk of the season. Saunders was an All-Star for Toronto, deservedly so after hitting .298/.372/.551 with 16 HR and 42 RBI in the first half.
The second half turned into a bit of a nightmare, however, and suddenly became the difference between Saunders being able to seek a three- or four-year deal for $15 million per season and staying on the market until being picked up by the Phillies in mid-January. The second-half numbers weren’t pretty, as Saunders hit .178/.282/.357 with 8 HR and 15 RBI. Was it just bad luck? Were the rigors of a 162-game schedule catching up to him? Was it the knee?
His BABIP of .377 in the first half and .221 in the second half would suggest some bad luck was involved in the later part of the season, with good luck earlier in the year. And, despite being 30 years old, Saunders has appeared in just 702 games in his Major League career, so there isn’t a ton of mileage on the tires. You could argue that it just became a long year as he was a full-time regular for the first time since 2013.
If you want to ask about the knee, Eno Sarris of Fangraphs profiled Saunders after the signing and cast some doubt on that theory:
Writing about defense is difficult because of sample sizes, but the best metrics we have available seem to suggest that Saunders wasn’t slowed considerably in the second half by an unreported injury. For one, Mike Petriello at MLB.com confirms that there was no difference in his times to first before and after July 1. His defensive charts also don’t seem to suggest that he was hobbled.
Despite the end-of-season struggles, Saunders finished the year with an .815 OPS, 24 HR and 57 RBI in 140 games, respectable numbers for a guy who was working his way back to full health in 2016. There will be a little bit more added pressure for him in 2017, seeing that he won’t be flanked by Josh Donaldson, Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista in this lineup, while also trying to prove his second half was not a fluke. That won’t be easy.
The Phillies may have nothing more than a bridge to the future in Saunders, a short-term solution. They may have also found someone who could be here beyond 2017, and maybe even 2018, if his health holds up and his performance is strong.
Saunders hasn’t exactly been on fire this spring, and of course nothing really truly matters until April. But for a guy who hasn’t been swinging a consistently hot bat since last July, every single month will matter from here on out.