Three for Spring – Part One

Michael_Saunders

Note: This is the first in a three part series

In order for the Blue Jays to repeat as AL East champions in 2016 they need a lot of things to go right.  Key players need to avoid injury, supporting players need to perform, the team needs to avoid a letdown after the excitement of 2015, off-field distractions can’t get in the way of on-field performance, a 110-win juggernaut can’t suddenly appear from the other teams in the division, and on and on and on.

It’s obvious that the Jays will need big years from Donaldson, Bautista, Encarnacion, Tulo, Martin, Stroman, and Osuna.  But what about the other guys, the supporting cast who are key to winning?

I have identified three players that are key to Toronto’s success, and who will go a long way in determining if the Jays get back to October.

Today we take a look at the first of those players: Michael Saunders.

Michael Saunders

Age: 29

2015 Stats: 9 games, .194 AVG / .306 OBP / .194 SLG / .499 OPS, 0 HR, 3 RBI, 0 SB, -0.1 WAR

Career Stats: 562 games, .230 AVG / .301 OBP / .381 SLG / .682 OPS, 51 HR, 185 RBI, 54 SB, 5.1 WAR

Saunders was acquired by the Jays in December 2014 in a straight-up deal for J.A. Happ.  The move should have been bigger news – a young in-his-prime Canadian brought in to fill a gaping hole in left field – but seemed to get lost amidst the other moves that were made (Donaldson, Martin).  Then Saunders suffered a freak injury in spring training and essentially missed the entire season.

But Saunders arrived in Dunedin a few weeks ago still a member of the Blue Jays, and after surviving a crazy first week in which he was rumoured to be on his way to LA as part of a 3-team trade for Jay Bruce, he is still a very prominent member of the Blue Jays.  That much was assured when Ross Atkins traded incumbent LF Ben Revere to Washington, opening up the corner outfield spot for a competition presumably between Saunders and Dalton Pompey.

Saunders projects to be a very important player for the Jays if he can win the LF battle (which I think he will).  While he might not have the speed of Pompey or the power of many other players on the roster, he has the ability to be a consistent offensive and solid defensive player.

The advanced fielding stats on both Fangraphs (Ultimate Zone Rating) and Baseball Reference (Defensive Runs Saved) profile Saunders to be above-average in left field.  He also passes the eye test, by gliding effortlessly to fly balls, throwing to the right base, and getting the ball in quickly to the infield to prevent an extra base.  (He made a terrific play on Saturday afternoon, holding a Phillies batter to a single on a ground ball to the corner).

In terms of his offensive ability, it’s hard to tell exactly where he may end up, but his upside is very good.  Just look at his career OBP:

2010: .295

2011: .207

2012: .306

2013: .323

2014: .341

Other than 2011 (a season in which he played only 58 games), his OBP has been on a steady increase.  To put his .341 OBP in 2014 in perspective, the league average that season was .314.

The rub, of course, is that he posted that .341 number in only 78 games.  In his six full seasons, Saunders has only played in 57% of his team’s games.  Staying healthy has proven to be difficult.

But there is hope as we get set for the 2016 season.  He has publicly stated this his knee is 100%.  In three spring games he is hitting .455 with a 1.727 OPS, 3 HR, and 8 RBI.  Further, with Pompey waiting in the wings, and possibly making the roster as a fourth outfielder, Toronto can afford to rest Saunders and keep him healthy.  In other words, they aren’t necessarily expecting 155 games out of him – 120 might be a reasonable target.

If he can produce a decent amount of power and something close to that .341 OBP across 120 games, the Jays will be in great shape.  And on a team currently without a leadoff hitter, maybe he’s worth a look at the top of the order here and there.  I’d prefer to see him there than a guy like Pillar.

Baseball Reference projects Saunders to finish with a slash line of .251 / .325 / .419 / .744, 7 HR, 27 RBI, and 4 SB.  Fangraphs ZiPS projections peg him with a slash line of .246 / .322 / .418 / .740, 8 HR, 42 RBI, 5 SB.

Call me optimistic, but I’m taking the over on those projections and expecting a very nice bounceback year from the Canadian.

Tomorrow on 500 Level Fan, part two: Chris Colabello.

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