Fixing the 2011 Seattle Mariners: Michael Saunders

Last week I detailed the possibility of the Mariners signing Ted Lilly and Ramon Hernandez. However, it’s probable that most of the Mariners team improvements will have to come from their farm system, or regression to mean for players who have underperformed this year.

In the case of Michael Saunders, the shoe may fit twice.

Like many Bill Bavasi acquisitions, when the Mariners drafted Saunders the most valuable thing he had going for him was potential. Saunders was highly projectable, an amazing athlete, but very raw. Saunders struck out close to or greater than 30 percent of the time in each of his four lower minor league stops. But results caused some scouts, be they amateur or professional, to buy hard on the hype. Unfortunately, those results were fueled by BABIPs over .320 at each level up to AA, with the exception of his first year, 2006, when he posted a .319 BABIP in A ball.

But as a result of the hype, and some pretty solid numbers in the minors, fans have known who he was for quite some time. It’s far too early to call Saunders a “Quad A,” a player whose abilities allow him to be successful in the minor leagues, but don’t translate in the majors. Usually these players are decent hitters that don’t have a position in the field, or players with a wide range of skills, but without one that can make an impact in the bigs.

Saunders certainly profiles best as the latter, as he’s certainly got potential to be a reasonably powerful hitter with some strike zone awareness, and ultimately, his strikeout numbers could go down. However, what will keep his potential-laden, but to-this-point results-barren skill set at baseball’s highest level is his defense.  Saunders is an elite level athlete, and has potential to be an elite defender in the outfield. In a small sample (835 innings in left field), Saunders has posted a UZR/150 of 9.3. How that number regresses is a matter of opinion, but even the most pessimistic projector almost certainly has Saunders’ future ahead of a guy like Felix Pie. (Pie is a productive fourth outfielder in Baltimore, third in light of Nolan Reimold’s struggles, on a team that has surprising outfield depth for as bad as they are).

The reality is that the market for outfielders is pretty top heavy. Carl Crawford and Jason Worth headline the list, and each will come at a hefty price tag. Each will get profiled in an attempt to add context to a fairly doubtful prospect of them dawning blue and teal, but in short, they’ll probably both be too expensive for Seattle.

More affordable options include: Coco Crisp (team option, likely to be exercised), Michael Cuddyer  (team option, unlikely to be exercised), Jason Kubel (team option, with debatable likelihood of exercising) Willie Harris, Brad Hawpe, David DeJesus (team option), and some similarly uninspiring names.

I personally happen to love Cuddyer and Harris, but only at severe discounts from their current salaries. Each can competently (but not well) play infield positions, and has a valuable skill at the plate that should translate into Safeco Field. However, excluding Crisp who will likely have his option exercised, none of the remaining players offer a viable skill set that would improve much on Saunders at the plate without completely gutting the team’s left field position defensively, and if they were going to do that, they may as well just put the money they’re spending on Milton Bradley to use on the field, and play Bradley in left.

So in a way, the Mariners are fairly hamstrung by Saunders skill set. If Saunders develops at all this offseason he’s got potential to easily eclipse the power production of David DeJesus, and while he’ll probably always strikeout more frequently than DeJesus, his power should offset that. If the team goes out and spends top-dollar on a long term free agent contract for a guy like Werth or Crawford, they’d potentially lose out on developing a guy who could be a notch less productive, and a guy that they’ll have on the cheap for two more seasons, and who is under team control for five more.

Maybe Saunders ceiling is that of a poor man’s Colby Rasmus. Rasmus should be the next profile up, but like Saunders he’s a guy with serious holes in his swing (33 percent strikeout rate this year), but more true power.

Rasmus asked for a trade this season, which has been reported this week, and if he gets it in the offseason one can be sure that the Mariners will call about a Saunders swap. Rasmus is a power hitting plus defender in center field that hits from the left side. A slide over to left should be easy for him, and his bat profiles well in Safeco field.

Though his ceiling is much higher, his one less year of team control may work as something of an equalizer in his and Saunders value.

If the rest of the league is high on Saunders, the Mariners may be best to trade him, but otherwise, he should be given the starting nod in left when the season starts next year.