Nothing exciting happens during spring training. Well maybe that’s not entirely fair, since things do catch our attention in spring, and perhaps even excite us for a short time. Ichiro’s move to the three-spot could be chalked up as “exciting,” but look at how much talk it has generated since the first couple days after the switch was announced. People don’t care anymore. It’s not a new thing anymore, it’s just a thing, and not that exciting of a thing. The Ramirez/Hultzen/Walker/Paxton game was a blast, but it was nothing but a meaningless spring training exhibition game and despite all the national attention three of those pitchers were sent to the minors the next day. Nothing exciting happens during spring training.
Well, I guess there’s one semi-exciting thing that’s been happening this March. Semi-exciting now, because it’s still just spring training, but potentially very exciting once the season starts. This potentially-exciting thing has been made possible by the Franklin Gutierrez injury, which is a different, awful kind of exciting. It was also made possible by the failures of Michael Saunders up to this point. What is this potentially-exciting thing that has everyone abuzz in Marinersland? Why, it’s Michael Saunders, of course. Former top prospect Michael Saunders and his shiny new swing.
Perhaps you’ve read something this offseason about how Saunders has been working tirelessly on tweaking his approach. It’s been covered pretty much everywhere. It’s being covered right here, right now! Saunders hired private hitting coach, who just so happens to be the brother of former terrible Mariners catcher Josh Bard. What Mike Bard wanted Saunders to focus on was “tightening up” his swing, better utilizing his lower body and eliminating gaps in his approach. Mechanical tweaks usually don’t amount to much, but sometimes they do. Jose Bautista’s mechanical tweak turned him from a bad utility player to the best hitter in baseball, just to cherry-pick the absolute most extreme example.
Anyways, this particular tweak looks like it might amount to something. That’s the key word, might. So far this spring Michael Saunders has looked terrific. He was all-but-guaranteed a roster spot after the Gutierrez injury by means of being the only remaining true center fielder on the 40-man. His defense is what’s going to bring him back to the major leagues this season after a couple of disastrous campaigns, but his intriguing bat is hoarding the attention. And rightfully so. Saunders has been written off for the last year-plus because he continually struggled to hit major-league pitching. It’s easy to forget that he is a former top prospect, and easier yet to forget the kind of things people were saying about him in the not-so-distant past.
In a February 2010 preview of the Mariners top ten prospects, Fangraphs’ Marc Hulet ranked Saunders first. It is critical to note that this list did not include ’09 draftees, which is why Dustin Ackley isn’t ranked. Hulet justifies the ranking by noting Saunders’ plus speed, plus defense, and… power? Before 2010, Saunders had a minor league ISO (isolated slugging) of .234, which is great. As we all know, that hasn’t carried over to the majors yet. It hadn’t by February 2010 and it hasn’t by March 2012. But that was only two years ago. There’s room for improvement that has been overshadowed by two dismal seasons, but the room is still there.
A different 2010 top prospects list from Matt Eddy of Baseball America ranked Saunders second in the Mariners system, behind Ackley and four spots ahead of Michael Pineda. A year earlier Baseball America had Saunders as the second-best prospect in the system behind Greg Halman. The same year Baseball Prospectus placed him third, behind Halman and Philipe Aumont. All the way back in 2008 Baseball America proclaimed Saunders to be the best defensive outfielder in the system. Michael Saunders was a top prospect for years. He’s not too far removed from being a top prospect, and all signs indicate that 2012 will mark yet another chance for him to take his well-touted tools to a big-league outfield.
I only bring up these long-ago praises because so few of them mention Saunders’ bat as a weapon. Despite this, they all predicted him to have a long, fruitful major league career. The dust of 2011 and 2010 has settled, and Saunders is still one of the absolute best athletes in the system. His defense is still superb and he’s still a speedster. The tools are there, and this spring he has grabbed headlines by showing opposite-field power for the first time in his career. Right now, Michael Saunders is looking about as promising as anyone in his situation could.
Michael Saunders is currently poised to contribute to the 2012 Seattle Mariners. Of course, the season is yet to begin. There’s no telling if his spring success will translate to regular-season success. At this point I won’t be surprised if he’s able to put together an impressive big league season. Now that’s exciting.