PEORIA, Ariz. – Nobody is talking anymore about Michael Saunders being the future in left field for the Seattle Mariners.
Saunders produced impressive minor league numbers after the Mariners drafted him in 2004, but a couple of difficult stints in the majors the past two years left the 24-year-old with a .214 average in 411 big-league at-bats.
Highly regarded prospect or not, that’s going to cause an organization to ponder other possibilities, which the Mariners are doing at spring training.
Saunders remains firmly in contention to be the opening-day left fielder, but the Mariners have created an open competition for the job. General manager Jack Zduriencik acquired Gabe Gross and Jody Gerut in the offseason, and although Gerut abruptly retired last week, there’s also Milton Bradley. He boasted on his first day of spring training that nobody can compete with him as long as he’s healthy, and so far he has hit better than anyone on the team.
Young players like Greg Halman, Carlos Peguero and Johermyn Chavz are getting a strong look, although it seems more likely that manager Eric Wedge will run with a left fielder who’s had a reasonable taste of the major leagues.
Bring it on. Bring them all on, Saunders says.
“I know left field isn’t going to be handed to anybody,” Saunders said. “That person is going to have to earn and deserve the starting spot. Last year was a disappointing year for me. I took that and it fueled a fire going into spring training.”
When Saunders gladly said good-bye to his .211 average in 289 at-bats with the Mariners in 2010, he couldn’t wait to get back to work in the offseason. After a short break, he jumped back into the batting cage in October, working in Peoria with Triple-A hitting coach Alonzo Powell to stabilize the lower half of his body during his swing.
After a month of that, Saunders eagerly began what he hoped would be a 100-at-bat stint with Lara in the Venezuelan Winter League, where he could put the changes to use against live pitching and, hopefully, come to spring training with a well-tuned swing.
What occurred was the furthest from that plan.
Ten games into his Venezuela season, Saunders injured his right elbow when he fielded a ball in the outfield and, as he threw it back into the infield, collided with another outfielder. He suffered a ligament injury that ended his winter season.
“It was a footrace between me and the right fielder to get to the ball, and I ended up calling him off,” Saunders said. “He got out of my way and ducked behind me, and I picked up the ball and threw it in. There was a runner on and I was trying to get it in quick. On my follow-through, my wrist ended up hitting his shoulder and it stretched my elbow ligament.”
He returned to Seattle on Dec. 17 for tests, which showed no significant damage. A platelet-rich-plasma injection and time to rest allowed the elbow to heal.
“Lucky enough, I was fine and I was ready to go for spring training,” he said.
Well, not for long.
One day in early January, Saunders developed a stomach ache.
“It went on for about four hours, and I thought I should probably go to the emergency (room) because this wasn’t just a stomach ache,” he said. “From the moment I stepped in, about 45 minutes later I was under for surgery.”
His appendix was the culprit, and it was removed. Luckily, he’d gotten to the hospital before it created a much worse problem.
“It hadn’t started leaking and it hadn’t burst yet, so I was able to go home that night,” Saunders said. “For the next couple days, I felt like I’d done about a billion crunches. It was painful but I’m glad I got it done. I had to rest a little bit, especially with my swing because it has so much to do with your core (muscles). After good week or so, I was able to get back in the cage and start swinging just fine. I felt ready coming into camp.”
Really? After all the early work to tweak his swing and only 26 winter at-bats, he felt ready?
“The whole Venezuela experience, despite my elbow, I got to see live pitching,” he said. “It was 25 at-bats or so but I think that helped.”
Saunders is batting .231 after 13 spring training at-bats.
“My swing feels good right now,” he said. “I’m seeing a lot of pitches and I’m starting to feel comfortable. I didn’t get as many at-bats as I wished I had down in Venezuela, but I’m tracking the ball well and seeing the ball well.”
Wedge is non-committal about what’s ahead for Saunders, except to say he’ll get plenty of playing time at spring training. Wedge knows, however, that even a month’s worth of at-bats won’t be enough to make a firm judgment about Saunders.
“It’s important for me and all the coaches to get a good feel for him on the field and, in particular, at home plate,” Wedge said. “But I don’t think we need to make that determining factor at spring training. What we need to figure out initially is how is he going to be a part of this as we move forward. Where do we see him now and where do we feel he needs to be?”
Saunders began spring training knowing he’s better than the hitter he was last year and in 2009, when he batted .221 in 122 big-league at-bats.
“I think you learn more from failure than you do from success,” he said. “I think I got away from my game plan last year. I was pulling off the baseball, trying to prove myself and hit with a little more power. I’ve got to know when to take that single the other way when they give it to me. I know that’s how I’m going to get attacked this year. It’s something I know I’ve got to get better at.”
“Coming up from the minor leagues, I was able to do that just fine, go the other way. That’s something I need to do to be successful at this level.”
The stakes are high for Saunders this time because he’s already had two go-rounds in the big leagues that ended short of his expectations. And this time, he’s got a new manager in Wedge and hitting coach in Chris Chambliss to impress.
“The first two times around I put too much pressure on myself,” Saunders said. “Coming into camp, I have high expectations for myself. I love the competition and may the best man win. I worked hard and I’m doing everything I can to make sure I’m that guy. I’ve just got to go out there and play my game.”