By John Boyle Herald Writer
Michael Saunders made some big changes this offseason, he says, because he was tired of getting his butt kicked by big-league pitching.
And Saunders only says he was “tired of getting my butt kicked the last couple of years” because he knows that what he really wants to say wouldn’t be suitable for a family newspaper.
“I promise you I put that as politically correctly as I could for an interview,” Saunders said by phone not long after hitting a home run in the Mariners’ Cactus League opener Friday.
Saunders knows that home run, as well as the other hits he accumulated in a promising start to spring training, will mean nothing come April if he can’t hit. Nonetheless, he is encouraged by what he has seen so far in spring training.
“It’s still early, but I’m hitting the ball and it’s obviously nice to see some success,” he said. “… A lot of hard work went into the offseason on adjusting and changing a few things, and to see success early on is extremely encouraging to me.”
And it’s a good thing for the Mariners that Saunders is feeling confident. At this time last week, the 25-year-old from Victoria, British Colombia, was a player who figured to be fighting for a job. But now, with starting centerfielder Franklin Gutierrez sidelined with a partially torn pectoral muscle, Saunders is battling to open the season in the starting lineup.
Now, let’s not kid ourselves, if Saunders doesn’t improve drastically on the .196 average he has posted over the past three seasons, no amount of injuries to other players will allow him to hold down an everyday job in the major leagues. But with a job suddenly open, and with Saunders swinging a hot bat and feeling confident, he is suddenly a real contender to play a big role this season, at least until Gutierrez returns and perhaps longer if he can take advantage of this chance.
The Mariners have other options in center field, so the job isn’t going to be handed to Saunders. However, he is the option that makes the most sense on a day-in-day-out basis.
Chone Figgins has played center field, but not since 2006, and the Mariners plan on using him primarily at third base. Casper Wells also has limited experience in center field, but is a more natural corner outfielder. Trayvon Robinson is another possibility, but he’s even more raw than Saunders, having played just 41 career games, and 30 of those were in left field.
All of which brings us back to Saunders. He’ll have to hit some to stay in the lineup, but in Safeco Field’s spacious outfield, his ability to cover ground and understand the nuances of the position should make him the favorite to hold down the job until Gutierrez returns.
“We’re all disappointed (about Gutierrez’s injury),” Saunders said. “… But I’m ready to step up. I was tired of getting my butt kicked the last couple of years, and that’s what led to try to find answers this offseason. I went seeking answers and I answered my own questions, and now I think it’s time for me to answer everyone else’s now.”
With Gutierrez out of the picture temporarily, now is the time for Saunders to step up. Since he began his professional career with the Everett AquaSox in 2005, the potential has been evident. Athletic, 6-foot-4 lefties with power are a rarity, and he showed enough promise to end up in the major leagues in 2009. For a while, his big league struggles were easy enough to write off as a young player trying to adjust, but Saunders now has 204 games under his belt. So, it’s sink or swim time, and no one is more aware of that than Saunders himself.
“I’m at a point where, I’m no longer a 22-year-old prospect who they’re going to send out there every day and hand at-bats. I have to earn every at-bat I get,” he said. “I was desperate, I was really looking for answers. I felt lost and it was the first time I ever tried going to an outside hitting guy, and I loved what I heard and what I saw. … I saw changes for the better, I felt like I was taking strides forward.”
One of the biggest changes this offseason for Saunders was a change in location. Instead of staying in Arizona to work out at the team’s facility in Peoria, he and his wife moved to Colorado. (A quick aside, it is clear, based on his explanation of the move, that Saunders is figuring out marriage faster than he is big-league pitching: “I figure she’s got to follow me around during the season for eight months wherever I am, so I’ll give her the offseason wherever she wants to go.”)
In Colorado, Saunders connected with Mike Bard, a private instructor who is the brother of former Mariners catcher Josh Bard. Working with Bard, Saunders worked on making more compact the big swing that has contributed to 180 strikeouts in 635 career plate appearances. They also spent a considerable amount of time working on Saunders’ mental approach, and while there is still a long, long ways to go, Saunders and the Mariners are seeing results.
“He’s been real good all spring,” Mariners manager Eric Wedge told reporters. “He’s up there ready to hit. He’s got a different look in his eye. He’s walking around with some confidence.
“This is a guy who has worked hard on every aspect of his game, the hitting has just been a little bit tardy for him, but by all indications, he’s much better this spring. … He’s worked hard to figure it out offensively and he’s much better than what we’ve seen in the past.”
With Gutierrez likely to miss at minimum a couple of weeks of the season, the timing of Saunders’ newfound confidence couldn’t be better for him or the Mariners. He may never get a chance like this again, and Saunders knows it’s time to step up and finally live up to the potential that has kept him around this long. It may be early, but Saunders likes where he is headed so far.
“I’m still very early in this new approach, I still have to learn and improve day in and day out, but the limited success I’ve seen so far is very encouraging,” he said. “I’m very excited about it. I worked my tail off this offseason and it’s showing. I’m seeing results and I’m happy.”
Herald Writer John Boyle: email@example.com.