Jays From the Couch takes a look at the play of Toronto Blue Jays’ Michael Saunders and his impending free agency
Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Michael Saunders is frustrating. Michael Saunders is good and bad at the same time. Michael Saunders was an All-Star this season. Michael Saunders is now a platoon player. All these statements are true of Saunders after the roller coaster 2016 season.
After missing almost the entire 2015 season with a torn meniscus, Saunders started the year with a lot to play for. First, he wasn’t a sure thing to win the OF spot out of Spring Training, a poor showing after an injury riddled season may have landed him on the bench at the beginning of the season. Second, Saunders is in a contract year, and having a stellar season was almost a must for him to earn a long term deal with a team this upcoming offseason.
Saunders would come out of the gates hot, and provide some much needed lefty power into the Jays righty dominate lineup. Now let’s wash away some of the recency bias your eyes may have been subjected to, and let’s examine the amazing first half of his season. Saunders would bat .298 with an OBP of .371, hit an amazing 16 home runs on his way to surpassing his career high of 19, and drove in 42 runs his career high only being 57 RBI for an entire season. The Blue Jays offence would struggle in the first half, and Saunders would be the spark that kept them going.
In the final vote for the All-Star game, Saunders was paired against Dustin Pedroia, Ian Kinsler, George Springer, and Evan Longoria. Toronto fans would rally behind “Captain Canada” and Saunders was named an All-Star for the first time in his career, looking like a huge bounce back candidate in the AL.
His game had flaws in the first half. He would strike out 26.7% of the time in 344 PA, but when the ball hit Saunders’ bat it was in play – 33.4% of all batted balls were hard hit, 20.3% were line drives. You knew these good numbers just simply couldn’t continue at this crazy pace as he had a first half BABIP of .377 ,which is just unheard of. One would expect an evening out over the second half.
At this point, Saunders numbers “evening out” would have been nice, no one expected the nose dive he would have in the second half. So far in the second half, he’s batting .180, with an OBP of .279, increasing his already high strikeout rate to 30.7%, and his BABIP has fallen all the way to .222. What’s odd about Saunders AB’s is he actually sees about 4.24 pitches per at bat which to put into perspective, Josh Donaldson, who has an OBP over .400 sees 4.22 pitches per at bat.
Saunders is league average at recognizing pitches around the zone, he’s league average in the amount he swings at pitches in and out of the zone and the amount he swings. However, the problem is the lack of contact Saunders makes at pitches outside the strike zone. He has trouble recognizing pitches way outside the zone, pitches that no one could imagine hitting. He makes contact with 49.4% of pitches outside the zone, which is 14.6% less than league average. So why does making contact with pitches outside the zone matter? For starters, many times base hits come from balls outside the strike zone, also hitting balls foul keep AB’s alive when you’re behind in the count, and when players like Saunders are swinging at balls outside the zone and not making contact they are usually swinging at bad pitches and hitting nothing but air.
Lets look at Saunders first at bat from the other night against Kevin Guasman.
First pitch is a called strike right on the border, second pitch is a changeup that is a good take by Saunders. On a 1-1 count, he doesn’t try and get ahead and opts to be really aggressive, swinging at a pitch well outside the zone. On a 1-2 count, Gausman tries to go for an easy strikeout and tempts Saunders with almost the exact same pitch. Saunders at this point is probably thinking that he’s going to get a fastball in the zone on a 2-2 count, but Gausman crosses him up and throws the same pitch a third time for the K. Five pitches, none of them in the zone, and two swings at Gausman’s splitter that didn’t even threaten Saunders bat.
One thing that did remain constant throughout the season, was Saunders poor fielding. In 1045 innings Saunders has played in the outfield this year, he has -11DRS, -8.9UZR. With the lack of range, his poor arm doesn’t help getting the ball back into the infield quickly, allowing base runners to test his arm and potentially turn singles into extra base hits. When Saunders bat was hot early in the season it was fine and the Jays played him a lot at DH, but with Jose Bautista back DHing, and Edwin Encarnacion becoming the DH, when Bautista moves to RF, it’s hard to fit Saunders into the lineup.
Saunders would play himself out of the lineup in a lot of games and that amazing contract year he was having is now a big question mark. Was Saunders’ first half a fluke? Is his second half the worst for him? Some of his numbers would suggest that the first half he was getting the right breaks at the plate, and his high K% could never continue to produce numbers that good, but it also doesn’t suggest that his numbers in the second half would be that terrible either.
So the question still remains: what do the Blue Jays do with Saunders in the offseason? Below are three scenarios, all are good options, all have positives and negatives for them, and some require corresponding moves to happen.
Option 1 – Qualifying Offer
Five days after the World Series, teams will extend qualifying offers to players who are becoming free agents, players who are usually offered QO are players who are most likely going to sign larger long term deals with another team, or players who a team wants to lock up on a short term basis. After the QO has been offered, the player than has seven days to either accept or decline the offer. The QO is the average of the top 125 salaries in the MLB, and this year will be around $16.5mil on a one year deal. If a player declines and signs with another team, the team they left will receive a draft pick from the team they signed with.
Before last year, no one had accepted a qualifying offer, most likely due to the fact that the dollar amount for one year wasn’t enough security for a player to accept, rather than just signing some sort of two year deal. Last year, players like Colby Rasmus and Brett Anderson were some of the first players to accept offers. Rasmus, thought his hot play in the playoffs would continue into the following season, and he could get a bigger pay raise if his numbers continued. Anderson thought that his dollar value was being effected by his injury history, and wanted to prove he could make it through a whole season without injury.
Saunders is a player who could likely accept a qualifying offer. If he thinks his second half is effecting his worth too much, then he could accept an offer for one year, improve his numbers on the QO, and then the following year receive more money in a long term deal.
Saunders season splits are crazy, and if you’re the person who doesn’t think that keeping him around for one year on ~$16.5mil dollar deal is worth it, this option isn’t for you. If you believe that it’s a risky move and signing him to a long term deal for him to only fizzle out, it’s a low risk/high price option for one year.
Option 2 – Possible Extension
Worst case scenarios. Saunders accepts a qualifying offer, he proves his second half was a fluke and sustains his first half numbers for a whole year, then reaches free agency worth more than ever and the Blue Jays can’t afford him. Not ideal. Potentially locking up Saunders on a long term deal is the option? The best case scenario is the Blue Jays can get Saunders based on his second half numbers, signing a 2yr/$16.5mil contract potentially with some sort of option on a third year. They would get him for about as much as the QO on a longer term deal, the one problem is if Saunders does continue to perform to his second half numbers, you’re stuck with him. He looks like a high risk/low price option in a longer term deal.
It’s hard to predict free agency but you would have to think, Saunders would want to stay with the Blue Jays. He’s playing for his country, and that was re-enforced when the city of Toronto and Canada voted him into the All-Star game, a memory/accolade he will never forget. He had a resurgence to his career with the Jays, and maybe a certain coach helped him reach these new heights. And finally, the Blue Jays are good!
Option 3 – Let Him Walk.
If you think Saunders isn’t worth any of these options, that’s totally fair just try and remember….
The Blue Jays outfield situation will be interesting entering next season. Kevin Pillar will continue to be a main stay out in centre, Melvin Upton Jr. provides great speed on offence, good defence and will most likely get more playing time next year. What the Blue Jays do with the impending free agency of Saunders and Bautista will determine a lot for the outfield situation next season. Maybe players like Ezequiel Carrera, Dalton Pompey, Darren Ceciliani will have a shot at trying out for the full time position in Spring Training. With a lack of free agents hitting the market this offseason, the Blue Jays will most likely have to look within their own organization for their answer.
FEATURED IMAGE CREDIT: Bliss Nogueira @blissnogueira blissphoto.ca
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