Flight of the Condor: Michael Saunders Enters Critical 2012 Season With a Shot at Redemption.

After years of failing to live up to expectations, Saunders knows he needs to make 2012 count. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

Michael Saunders would like to forget that 2011 ever happened.

Would anyone blame him?

The Mariners centerfielder struggled all season long with Seattle, hitting .149 and striking out a whopping 56 times in just 161 at-bats for the big league club.

If the numbers weren’t bad enough, the way Saunders failed only exacerbated his, and Mariners’ fans, frustrations.

The bat rarely left his shoulder, and when it did, Saunders looked like he was swinging under water. Weak ground outs and pop ups, check swing strikeouts, and too many called third strikes to count.

He wasn’t just failing, he was imploding, and fans could see the young ballplayer unraveling at the seams. Little did they know the extent of Saunders struggles…

Off the field, his mother, Jane, was losing her 13-year battle with cancer. Michael had a special relationship with his mom, who was in attendance at Safeco Field on Mother’s Day 2010 when Saunders hit his first major league home run. Jane finally lost her battle with cancer in August, and Michael was granted an extended leave of absence by the Mariners to spend time with his family.

After six weeks away from baseball, Saunders returned to Triple-A Tacoma and hit well, posting a .864 OPS for the Rainiers. It looked like the Condor had finally turned a corner and was ready to take flight, but he came crashing back down to earth when he returned to the Mariners in September.

In 24 at-bats after being recalled by Seattle, Saunders collected just one hit (.042 BA) and struck out 11 times. There’s a difference between patience and passiveness at the plate, and Saunders was so timid that it looked like he didn’t even want to be there. Mariners fans yelled at their TVs, pleading with Saunders to swing, just swing, but nothing they said could clear his Ayers Rock-sized mental block.

Can Michael Saunders make Mariners fans forget about his tumultuous 2011 season? (Hannah Foslien/Getty)

The season ended, and Saunders struggles mercifully disappeared into the darkness of winter. Franklin Gutierrez would be back in 2012, and there was Casper Wells and Trayvon Robinson too. He’d been given every chance to succeed with the Mariners, and squandered them all like the prodigal son. Saunders was destined to be forgotten; another failed Mariners prospect in an overflowing pile of unfulfilled expectations.

Spring rolled around and Saunders reported to camp with talk of a new swing. It didn’t matter much at the time; plenty of players show up to spring training with a “new approach at the plate” or in “the best shape of their life” and it usually it amounts to a hill of beans. Besides, he was buried on the depth chart and ticketed for another season in Tacoma; who cared what his swing looked like?

Then, as quickly as it had been dismissed, his new swing suddenly mattered a whole lot. Franklin Gutierrez, the surefire Opening Day starter, suffered a tear in his pectoral muscle and Saunders, the player who had appeared to run out of opportunities, was suddenly front and center.

Thwack! Thwack! Thwack! If confidence had a sound, it was the noise the ball made as it met Saunders’ suddenly potent bat. He was no longer on the defensive at the plate, he was in attack mode and lasering base hits to all fields. The browbeaten boy of 2011 was gone; in his place stood a self-assured man with something to prove.

As the Mariners travel to Japan to open the season against the Oakland Athletics on March 28th, Saunders isn’t just the starter in center by default, he’s earned it.

The Condor has risen from the ashes of seasons past and spread his wings, knowing this year might finally be his last chance.

He just can’t let this one go by like another called third strike…

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The Kids Aren’t Alright: What’s Wrong With Michael Saunders?

Michael Saunders has been more inconsistent than my bowel movements after eating a Double Down.

When Ken Griffey Jr “retired” earlier this season, young left fielder Michael Saunders became my favorite player on the woebegone squad. What can I say—I’ve got a thing for lefties who spend their summer days flirting with the Mendoza Line.    

Though he wasn’t a top draft pick (11th round of the 2004 draft) Saunders combination of power and speed allowed him to move steadily through the Mariners’ farm system, reaching the majors last season to fill the void left by Raul Ibanez. Saunders struggled mightily in his first chance in the show (.221-0 HR’s-4 RBI’s-6 walks/40 strikeouts) as his long swing was exposed by big league pitchers. Still, at only 22, there was still plenty of reasons to be optimistic about Saunders heading into 2010.    

Saunders’ role with the team was temporarily in question when the Mariners acquired Milton Bradley in the offseason to play left field and DH, but it didn’t take long for him to get the call from Tacoma when Bradley was neutralized with a variety of injuries and mental instability. Despite continued contact issues, Saunders flashed the power that made him such a highly regarded prospect, hitting seven home runs in 106 May and June at-bats for a power starved Mariners’ team. He even went deep twice against southpaws, highlighted by a go-ahead home run against Red Sox ace Jon Lester. While his slugging dipped in July, Saunders showed improved plate discipline, drawing 11 walks against 16 strikeouts and posting a .380 OBP for the month. It seemed that the light had come on for Saunders and he was on the verge of a breakout season. But then, just as suddenly as he found his groove, Saunders hit a wall. Literally.   

The Condor will have to continue to develop at the plate if he wants to help the Mariners back to the playoffs.

In an August game against the Texas Rangers, Saunders collided with the left field wall trying to keep a home run in the park, and injured the same shoulder that he had labrum surgery on earlier in his career. Though the injury wasn’t serious, Saunders was shelved for around two weeks before returning to the lineup on August 31st. Since that time, the Condor just hasn’t been able to take flight, hitting a paltry .161 in September with just one extra base hit in the month (he hasn’t hit a home run since July). Reports from the clubhouse seem to indicate that Saunders’ shoulder is feeling fine, so what does he have to do in order to stay an important piece in the Mariners’ rebuilding effort?   

Part of Saunders’ regression is due to bad luck, as he carries a batting average on balls in play (BABIP) of just .267 on the season (last season his BABIP was .329, the league average is around .300). Saunders has the wheels to leg out base hits, but he hits too many pop ups (16% of his flyballs don’t leave the infield) and flyballs (0.57 groundballs for every 1 flyball) to utilize his speed. While part of the low BABIP is out of  Saunders’ control, he would benefit from a shorter, compact swing which would allow him to make more consistent, solid contact (his 16 percent career linedrive rate is well below the MLB average of 19%). A shorter swing would also allow Saunders more time to react to pitches, neutralizing his two biggest weaknesses (fastballs inside and breaking balls away) and giving him a better chance to hang in against lefties. 

Saunders certainly has the talent to become an above average left fielder (think .270-20 HR’s-70 RBI’s-20 SB’s) and I hope that the Mariners give him a chance to play full-time in 2011, because let’s face it, they probably won’t be contending for the AL West title anyway. Saunders needs to make some adjustments in order to raise his average and provide value to the Mariners at the plate (he’s already a solid defensive player), and the best way to do that is to get at-bats at the major league level (especially against left handers, so they won’t have to platoon him in the future). If the Mariners want to climb out of the cellar next season, it will be on the strength of young players like Justin Smoak, Dustin Ackley, Michael Pineda and Saunders–the days of overpriced free-agents in Seattle are over. 

Mark my words, the Condor (and the M’s) will soar. Just not in 2010…