3 Reasons Why Michael Saunders Is Still Hanging Out on the MLB Free Agent Market
In his second -- and most likely last -- season with the Toronto Blue Jays, outfielder Michael Saunders put together the kind of year any MLB player wants before hitting free agency. He proved his health with a career-high number of games (140) and plate appearances (558), while using that time to post new personal bests in home runs (24), doubles (32), OPS (.815) and wRC+ (117).
He also appeared in his first All-Star game, but it doesn't seem like he's anywhere near finding a new home for 2017 and beyond. The team publicly linked to Saunders the most has been the Baltimore Orioles, which first came to our attention during the Winter Meetings earlier this month. However, nothing seems to be imminent.
How is it possible that his market is this quiet after having the best overall year of his career? There are three main reasons why he's still unemployed and why it could be a while before he puts his John Hancock on the dotted line.
The 2016 season was essentially two seasons combined into one for Saunders. In the first half, he was one of baseball's best hitters. In the second half, he was one of the worst.
To put this in perspective, Saunders' production (when comparing wRC+) prior to the All-Star break was on par with Manny Machado (147), Nelson Cruz (146) and Mark Trumbo (143), and better than Edwin Encarnacion (138) and J.D. Martinez (133), among others.
That's quite the about-face.
Saunders has never been known for his glove, but it's bad enough where there may not be a whole lot of interest from National League teams, which further curtails his potential market. Here's a look at how his Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) has progressed throughout his career:
To put it plainly: the results aren't good.
He's put together some positive numbers in a few different campaigns, but the most important years to look at are 2012, 2013 and 2016, since those are the only seasons he played in at least 130 games. Any interested team will hope to get that number of games from him in 2017, and trusting him will be tough.
It's even more concerning for the Orioles because their interest in Saunders comes from the fact that they currently have a hole to fill in right field, which is a position he's manned for just 980 innings throughout his entire career.
So, if a team took the risk and put him in the everyday lineup as something other than a designated hitter, they'd have to feel confident he could at least duplicate his 2016 offensive output. Judging from his previous years and the inconsistent one he just experienced, it wouldn't be shocking if front offices are balking at that notion.
Plenty of Other Fish in the Sea
While there has been plenty of chatter this winter about how unspectacular the free-agent class is overall, it's full of hitters with 20- or 30-homer power who profile best as either a first baseman or a designated hitter.
Encarnacion finally signing with the Cleveland Indians can help the power-hitter market move a little more, but there are a lot of players with similar profiles still available. This group includes Trumbo, Jose Bautista, Mike Napoli, Chris Carter, Pedro Alvarez and Brandon Moss.
It's helpful that Saunders doesn't have draft-pick compensation attached to him like some other sluggers, but he hasn't done much to distinguish himself from the rest of the pack. So, he'll probably still be waiting around for Trumbo, Bautista and maybe even Napoli to strike a deal somewhere first before his market gains more clarity.
We always tend to forget how quickly things can change. Saunders went from potentially deserving an in-season extension from the Blue Jays to waiting for other teams to be interested in him via free agency over the span of just a few months. It's not like he isn't going to find a new home for next season somewhat soon -- he will, it'll just be harder than many initially expected.
Baseball is a funny game like that.
Even with his imperfections, he did shed the injury questions that followed him over the last couple years and posted the best season of his big-league career in 2016. Teams may not know what the "normal" is for Saunders at the plate because his first half and second half were completely different, but he has the potential to be one of the winter's biggest bargains as the calendar turns to January.