By all accounts from Peoria he’d shown up to camp looking like an absolute stud of a major league center fielder.
Michael Saunders on the other hand was a bit of an afterthought heading in to the spring.
While there was certainly talk of his new and improved approach at the plate, Mariners fans have been watching this kid struggle mightily in his first 3 big league seasons and we’d all but made up our minds that he wasn’t going to work out, at least not as an everyday player.
The open door
As we all know by now, Franklin Gutierrez suffered a partially torn pectoral muscle in late February and has yet to have seen the field in a Mariners uniform, and thus, leaving the door open for Michael Saunders to have a clear path towards another chance at a starting spot in center.
The 25 year old Saunders has taken this chance seriously. The talk in the offseason about his change of approach was with the shortening of his swing and the ability to finally hit the ball hard the other way. I’m here to tell you that it’s worked.
Last year, during the 2011 season I was making fun of him a bit with my buddies while watching the games.
You could literally draw a straight line on the TV, from home, straight over the second base bag and in to dead center field and Saunders would never hit the ball on the third base side of that line without it being a dribbler to the third baseman.
A new leaf turned?
Saunders is now driving the ball to all fields, he’s second on the team behind an emerging stud, Kyle Seager in doubles, batting average and OPS.
While none of his numbers are staggering on the season, they certainly have been of late. He’s showing that he may be able to develop in to more than just an everyday player, he’s got the tools to be a star with size (6’4″-215 lbs.), speed, a good arm, power and the ability to get on base at a high rate.
The biggest thing that has helped Saunders this year has been his aggressiveness.
Mike Blowers says it quite often on the broadcasts, he’s finding the first fastball anywhere near the zone and putting a good swing on it, spraying the ball to all fields in the process.
After a slow start, Saunders batting average is .330 with an OPS of .885, 8 doubles and 5 stolen bases in his last 104 plate appearances over a span of 25 games.
Furthermore, outside of trying to catch a ball with his cheek bone and essentially costing the Mariners a game in Chicago a few weeks back, Saunders has been a solid defensive center fielder with good range and a plus arm.
Needless to say, the Victoria, BC native is making the most of the opportunity he’s been given.
What Franklin Gutierrez provides defensively in center field is undeniable. He reads the ball off of the bat as well as any center fielder who’s ever played the game. His closing speed on balls over his head or in the gaps is breathtaking and he glides across the outfield making impossible catches for most seem effortless.
Gutierrez’ shortcomings are most certainly not on the defensive side of his game.
People seem to point to the 2009 season when they talk about his potential at the plate though. Unfortunately, that season where he hit 18 home runs, had a .283 batting average and a .764 OPS is the statistical outlier in Gutierrez’ career.
Fact of the matter is, Gutierrez, when looking at his batting statistics alone is nothing more than a decent 4th outfielder. In his 2,262 career at-bat’s, he’s hitting .256 with a .690 OPS, hardly numbers to justify starting in center field everyday, regardless of his defensive prowess.
Has he changed?
As noted above in regards to Michael Saunders, hitters can change from year to year and adding nearly 20 lbs. in muscle during an offseason is certainly one way to attempt this necessary change to solidify a starting spot in the coming years for the Mariners.
Gutierrez is now 9 games in to his rehab assignment with the Tacoma Rainiers after not having any live action in spring training, he’s hitting .235 with no home runs and has yet to hit his stride.
Time will certainly tell if his new body will bring him more success at the plate, I tend to think it’s his swing that is the issue, not his power.
The real question here is, has Michael Saunders earned the starting center field spot in Guti’s absence?
Where they stand
While Michael Saunders can be kept via salary arbitration at a reasonable rate through the 2016 season, Gutierrez is in the 3rd year of a 4 year, 20.25 million dollar deal with a team option for the 2014 season.
In the short term, I don’t see any way possible that Guti’s not given a shot at his job back when you consider the investment the Mariners have made in him and what they’ve done in similar contract situations.
However, he’ll turn 30 this offseason and I have major questions as to whether he’ll be back after the 2013 season.
So what happens now?
Regardless of how well Saunders is playing, like I stated above, I think the organization will put Gutierrez in the everyday lineup in center field once he proves ready in Tacoma and move Saunders over to left for the time being as it appears that nobody is ready to run away with the starting left field job.
With Mike Carp looking atrocious at the plate seemingly since spring training started, Alex Liddi looking lost trying to play left, Casper Wells being sent to Tacoma and Chone Figgins looking like, well, Chone Figgins, I think the decision for now is an easy one.
The real decision comes after this season, if the Mariners are serious about contention in the near future this is certainly one of the biggest position battles on the team.
Jack Zduriencik must devote time and energy in to figuring out who his every day center fielder will be as the franchise moves forward.
My guess? Outside of a surprise return by Gutierrez to his 2009 form, I believe Saunders and his newly discovered confidence will win the job and Gutierrez will be sent packing after a year in 2013 of being relegated to the 4th outfielder position as his bat calls for.