Michael Saunders, Our Future Left Fielder

It’d be tough to find a credible prospect list that ranked Michael Saunders as the Mariners #1 – in fact, he probably doesn’t even land the #2 spot on a fair number of them, but I absolutely cannot overstate how important he is to the Seattle Mariners. He isn’t a former first round draft pick, and I highly doubt he’d be classified as “untouchable” by the Mariners front office, but his potential is mind-blowing.

Firstly, he’s just 23 years old, and he’s major league ready – and if he doesn’t get significant major league time in 2010, he’ll almost certainly be the starting left fielder come 2010. However, his 2009 .310/.378/.544 slash line in 282 AAA appearances gives the indication that he’s ready now. Fortunately, at his young age, a little bit more time in the minors certainly couldn’t hurt, and could give him a nice opportunity to improve his contact rates. But anyway, his young age and and maturity level aren’t the only things that contribute to his overall value.

Michael Saunders comes with quite a rarity when you’re looking at a young prospect – realistic potential to become a five-tool player. When you take even a glance at Saunders, they’re all there, beginning with offense.

Ignoring the obvious red flags of Matt Hagen at The Hardball Times ranking him as our #1 prospect and Ackley as our #3 prospect, he still has some interesting stuff to say about Saunders, seeing him as having the potential to eventually be a 30/30, .300 hitter. John Sickels of Minor League Ball, on the other hand, isn’t nearly as optimistic, thinking something like a .270/.330/.450 line is a more realistic projection. I’m inclined to think he ends up somewhere in between – with his speed, his advanced offensive talent, and the opportunity for left handed power hitters at Safeco Field, I see something like 25/25 with a .280/.350/.500 slash line as being pretty plausible in the future.

The one blemish on Saunders’ offensive package is clearly his tendency to strike out a lot, and while it’s far from a deal-breaker, it could go a long way towards keeping him from reaching his ceiling. Or at least, it looked that way in 2008. In 2009, however, he made some major strides down in Tacoma, bringing his K% down from 26.6% in 2008 to 19.4% in 2009, and bringing his BB/K from .45 to .52. But his contact rates weren’t the only numbers that took major leaps last year – his ISO went from .158 to .234, which is pretty significant, as his value certainly takes a bit of a jump if he can sustain above average power levels.

Also worth nothing: if anyone ever tries to point out the numbers that Saunders put up during his brief stint with the Mariners in ’09 as a way to downplay his value or major league readiness, slap them in the face. Those numbers are virtually meaningless. Not only were they compiled over all of 129 plate appearances, but 55 of them were against lefties. Obviously he’s going to need to be able to hit lefties as well as righties if he aims on eventually being an everyday player, but a) this was a very small sample size, and b) until he’s matured a bit more, it’s extremely likely he’s going to show some fairly noticeable platoon splits. He isn’t a perfect player, and he is by no means done developing, but he’s most certainly a much better hitter than he looked in those 129 PA’s.

While he likely has a future as an above average hitter (whether it be .340 wOBA above average or .400 wOBA above average, or anywhere in between), a large portion of his value is always going to come from his defense. We got a glimpse of how good he can be last year, posting a 5.8 UZR in just 39 games, and while he’s unlikely to continue putting up those kind of numbers (that’s roughly +19 defensive runs over 150 games), every indication points to him being a well above average defensive outfielder. He’s got great range, and according to every scouting report I can find, a good arm.

On top of all that, there are a couple of other pretty large factors that contribute to his value – firstly, he’s under team control for 6 more seasons, and he’s cheap. I’m ecstatic to have Cliff Lee, but if we had given up those 6 years of Michael Saunders in that deal, it would have made it pretty hard for me to get too excited. With Saunders in the wings, we’ve basically got our outfield set through at least 2012, and with Saunders in left, Gutierrez in center, and Ichiro in right, we’ll no doubt be getting solid offensive production, and some of the best defense in the game from our outfield. Also, if Dustin Ackley happens to stick at second base, it makes it much less likely that any budding stars disrupt our outfield mojo – at least not any time soon.

And finally, he’s left handed. This isn’t quite as important as the rest of the things I’ve mentioned, but it’s still worth mentioning. Since Michael Saunders is a player with potential for decent power, but isn’t real likely to develop into a big bopper, it’s going to be quite beneficial for him to be playing at Safeco Field, and I probably don’t need to explain why. Let’s just say that it’s a very friendly park for left handed power hitters, and leave it at that.

I wrote this because I’ve started to feel like a good amount of fans aren’t nearly as high on Saunders as they should be, and to me, anyway, it seems pretty important to realize how lucky we are to have a player like him in our system.

Tags: Dustin Ackley Franklin Gutierrez Ichiro Mariners Michael Saunders Prospects

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