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October 9, 2014 at 5:09 PM

The Mariners and Michael Saunders — a situation gone awry

Michael Saunders

AP photo

 

Update 10 p.m. — Saunders and Zduriencik did speak via phone on Wednesday night. No details of the conversation were made public and likely won’t be. 

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This isn’t simple, not for the Mariners, not for Michael Saunders.

One side isn’t right but the other side isn’t wrong. It’s basically two parties offering different criticisms and explanations for a situation that seems to have gone awry.

There have been insinuations and minor accusations leading to hurt feelings and sense of disrespect. There obviously hasn’t been enough communication.

And in the end, there isn’t a simple solution or fix.

Beyond all the conjecture and emotion from fans and others, there is a disconnect between the outfielder and the organization.

Will it be solved before spring training? Can it be fixed? Or will Saunders be playing with another team next year.

For clarification: Saunders was contacted about the situation, but chose not to comment on the record. He is aware of what his agent, Michael McCann, was saying on the record about the situation.

The comments

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Seattle Times file photo

Two days after the 2014 season ended with a mixture of accomplishment and disappointment, Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik and manager Lloyd McClendon held a season wrap-up press conference at the request of the local print media. With the Mariners playing up until the final day of the season, there was really no chance to discuss the season that was and the offseason that was upcoming.

The questions were typical and expected – things about the offseason, positional needs, injury updates and expectations for spring training. Of course, specific players were discussed – the health of Taijuan Walker, the struggles of Austin Jackson and, of course, the future of Michael Saunders.

So there is no accusation of any interpretation, here’s the exact sequence verbatim:

Question: Jack, Michael Saunders showed flashes of playing really well, but couldn’t kick the injury bug. Where do you see him fitting in with this club’s future?

Zduriencik: “Well, like any other player, it’s up to Michael. All these guys have gained experience and have another year under their belt. The thing with Michael is trying to keep him on the field for the amount of time you’d like to have him. It’s unfortunate. He was playing well, got hurt, came back, got sick, came back again and did some nice things. But I think what Michael has to do and has to answer this to himself, is ‘how do I prepare myself to play as many games through the course of 162 that I can possibly play without being setback by injury.’ Some are freak injuries. Some are things that just happened. But some of these things need to be handled from a maintenance standpoint where he put himself in a position where he’s able to compete through the course of the season.”

At the time, it raised a few eyebrows from some of the media present because it seemed like a criticism of Saunders’ preparation as a reason for the injuries. Let’s be clear, Saunders has never had the conditioning issues of Jesus Montero. He’s always seemed to report to spring training in good physical condition. And he’s always busy pregame with his routine. He isn’t a guy to lounge in the clubhouse.

This was a premise about Saunders that hadn’t been said before.

When asked what Saunders needed to do specifically, McClendon mentioned more time in the weight room.

Later that day, Zduriencik was on KJR (and the other two radio stations as well), and this was his answer to Dave Mahler’s question Saunders’ injury issues.

“It’s something you have to talk about. It’s something I had in a discussion in the last 24 hours. You like Michael. You like a lot of things about Michael. I think Michael brings a lot of things to the table. But 230 at-bats through the course of the year for a young man is pretty challenging. I think Michael’s history of injury here. Some were freak injuries – a collarbone issues, a rib cage muscle, some things like that. They just happen. Other ones are maybe, well, should there be things that Michael should be doing in the offseason to prepare himself a little better to play 162 games.”

Zduriencik’s comments didn’t sit well with Saunders or McCann. Both found out immediately.

“I found it very disappointing that it came out in a public forum,” McCann said on Tuesday. “I don’t see the merit.”

While Saunders wouldn’t comment, there was obvious frustration in his voice. A player never likes to have his work ethic questioned. And during his time with the Mariners, it’s never been questioned before. To have it come out in the media first made it that much more hurtful.

“It was shocking to hear that,” McCann said. “The first time I heard that was the day of the presser. And Michael was never told that there is something that needed to be changed. If there was, Michael Saunders would do it. These comments don’t reflect Michael Saunders’ work habits. They imply that that he’s lackadaisical.”

When Zduriencik was reached on Wednesday about McCann’s concerns, the Mariners’ GM said it wasn’t meant to be a direct affront to Saunders.

“The message was to Michael and every one of our other players – be ready to go and be in position to play as many games as possible,” Zduriencik said.

When asked if he could see why Saunders and his representatives might be upset with his comments-  particularly his use of the phrase – “It’s up to Michael” – Zduriencik tried to be diplomatic.

Previously, Zduriencik’s used that line on multiple occasions for the conditioning  and conduct foibles of Montero.

“It wasn’t meant to be like that,” Zduriencik said. “I would say the same thing for Mike Zunino. ‘How good is Mike Zunino going to be? Well it’s up to Mike Zunino. How good is James Jones going to be? Well, It’s up to James Jones.'”

Zduriencik remained firm that it wasn’t questioning Saunders’ work ethic.

“Michael is a good worker,” Zduriencik said. “He’s always been a good worker.”

But that’s not how the Saunders’ camp feels it was portrayed.  And they are more upset that it was aired in the media and not discussed face-to-face when the season ended.

“Michael hasn’t heard from Jack or anyone since the season ended,” McCann said.

Is there a disconnect or an apparent lack of communication?

“If there is, there won’t be,” Zduriencik said. “We wanted to give the players a couple weeks after the season to unwind. I hope there isn’t a disconnect.”

Zduriencik said his plan was to call each player individually and also having McClendon, respective position coach and strength and condition coach Jimmy Clifford also contact each player to discuss the offseason expectations.

“I already had one discussion with a player today,” Zduriencik said.

Based on what has transpired in the last week, those should be some interesting conversations.

The injuries

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Seattle Times file photo

Michael Saunders has dealt with injuries for much of his big league career. It’s not a knock, it’s a fact.  They are injuries born out of hustle and hard play. But they still keep him off the field and have hindered his progress in becoming an every day player.

Fair or unfair, the perception of a player changes when he misses extended parts of seasons on the disabled list, particularly for a manager who wants to rely on him daily.

“I think his numbers tell you that he is,” McClendon said when asked about Saunders being an every day player. “But the problem is he’s not out there every day. There’s no better joy for a manager than to be able to write a name into the lineup every day. When a guy is on the DL, it’s tough. It throws everything out of whack.”

Saunders believes he’s an every day player. He said as much on the last day of the season.

But he is the first to admit that the injuries have been a problem.

Here’s what he’s dealt with since 2012.

2014

  • May 10 – Hyper-extended knee in the outfield. No DL time. Missed a few games.
  • June 6 – Shoulder strain suffered by swinging a bat. Missed three games. Came back and was clearly in pain. Placed on the DL on June 11. Missed 14 games and returned on June 26.
  • July 10 – Suffered a strained left oblique on check swing in a game against the Twins. Placed on the 15-day DL on July 11.  During his rehab stint, he contracted with Fifth Disease while on paternity leave. Sat out five days and pulled off his rehab stint. Finally recalled on Sept. 7. He missed 50 games.

2013

  • April 10 – Suffered a sprained AC joint in his right shoulder, crashing into the wall while make a catch. Activated on April 28 – missed 17 games.
  • June 29 — missed five starts with a sprained/cut finger from being spiked in a game. Did appear as a pinch hitter.

2012

  • August 24th – Strained groin on a collision with a catch with Eric Thames. Re-aggravated the strain on August 31. Missed a total of 11 games with the injury.

McCann labeled all of Saunders’ problems as “effort injuries.”

Saunders plays extremely hard. That’s never been questioned. McClendon said in May that he planned to rest Saunders every four or five games because he played so hard that it might lead to him breaking down.

It’s difficult to ascertain how many of these injuries would be prevented with improved conditioning. Oblique strains are now quite commonplace because of the overall strength and torque players put on their core areas. There is a belief that oblique strains are a trauma type injury, similar to a sprain.

The shoulder issue this season seemed like a fluke play. But you have to wonder if there are residual effects from the sprain from 2013.

Seattle Times file photo

Seattle Times file photo

That injury in 2013 was interesting. Because when Saunders came back, he struggled.

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It was clear that he came back to soon. But Saunders stubbornly maintained he was healthy when asked. McCann said he wasn’t.

“Eric Wedge called him and implored him to come back,” McCann said. “He felt things were slipping away. Michael knew the shoulder wasn’t completely right, but he came back.”

Could this season’s shoulder issue have been avoided with more “preparation” in the offseason?  That wasn’t being said by the Mariners.

When asked about specific injuries that might have been preventable, Zduriencik wouldn’t go into details.

But said he had asked his training staff and his strength and conditioning coach to address some of the non-structural injuries, like oblique strains. He said it would be a “collaborative” effort.

The playing time

Seattle Times File photo

Seattle Times File photo

The issues for Saunders go beyond just what Zduriencik said two days after the season. That was the culmination of a frustrating season.

Saunders would never come out and complain about his playing time. He’s not that type of a person. But it was clear, he was frustrated with his role on the team early in the season and late in the season.

McCann knows his client missed 70 games with injury. But his belief is that Saunders “wasn’t used enough” when he was healthy.

There were signs of a different role. He was not a part of the center field competition and played in several “B” games during spring training, while Abraham Almonte was auditioned in center field and Dustin Ackley was given more time to adjust to left field and youngsters James Jones and Stefen Romero saw plenty of action.

Once the season started, Saunders was largely a fourth or fifth outfielder on the roster early on. Almonte started in center. Ackley played left field, while the recent acquisitions of Logan Morrison and Corey Hart also got starts in the outfield to try and build off their projected power and Stefen Romero was a platoon type player.

It cost Saunders playing time. He appeared in 21 games in April and started nine of them, going 7-for-39 with a .600 OPS

Screen Shot 2014-10-09 at 3.00.30 PM

But with Morrison and Hart going down with injuries early in the season, Saunders playing time spiked. He had an extremely productive May. But the shoulder injury killed it.

While he was out, Endy Chavez was called up and James Jones had a hot start. Saunders returned from the DL and started to get productive again. But then suffered the oblique strain. In his absence, Chavez started playing well and the team acquired Austin Jackson and Chris Denorfia at the deadline.

After the illness sidetracked his rehab stint, the Mariners brought Saunders back on Sept. 7. He started 11 of the last 19 games and appeared in two others.

When Saunders played, he was effective.

Fans were upset when McClendon stuck with the platoon, using Denorfia against lefties.

Denorfia’s production certainly wasn’t outstanding.

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It’s difficult to not think that Saunders might not have been a better option at times than Denorfia. If you want to get ultra specific, this game where Denorfia – a solid outfielder – didn’t make a key play in this loss.  No guarantees that Saunders makes the play, but he is considered a better defensive outfielder.

Here’s Saunders split slash lines  vs. lefties the last three seasons:

  • 2014 – .262/.352/.328 – 73 plate appearances
  • 2013 – .211/.293/361 – 150 plate appearances
  • 2012 – .261/.307/.467 – 192 plate appearances

McCann pointed out that Saunders’ OPS against lefties since 2012 is better than Kyle Seager’s over the same period. as justification. But there is a rather large difference in plate appearances. Here’s Seager’s numbers

  • 2014 – .242/.291/.370 – 237 plate appearances
  • 2013 – .235/.282/.408 – 225 plate appearances
  • 2012 – .237/.281/.377 – 233 plate appearances

 

Look, McClendon made his choices about the lineup. He said he was playing the matchups that he felt gave him the best chance to win. He had his reasons and not all of them were completely statistically based. The fact that Saunders missed as much time as he did certainly could have been a factor in the future decisions.  It’s McClendon’s team and his record and his choice. The thought of more daily lineup discussion and dissection is nauseating.

The future

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Seattle Times File Photo

It’s difficult to say whether the relationship between Saunders and the Mariners is broken or unfixable. But it seems to have all the stability of a reality dating show engagement. Saunders feels disrespected by the organization for being called out in the media on something that he takes pride in – preparation and effort level. Questioning a player’s commitment usually leads to resentment.

The organization has been frustrated by his injuries, missed games and unreliability. They believe there are ways he could prevent that and within in their right to ask for that. Zduriencik believes that asking any player to adjust his offseason preparation each year is typical.

A cynic could look at this and believe that both sides are posturing for a possible arbitration battle in the offseason. Saunders is in his second year of arbitration eligibility. He made $2.3 million last year. And it’s unlikely he will get much more than that because of the missed time with injuries. His effectiveness in the limited games still doesn’t project in an arbitration setting, where bulk numbers are key. Also, the Mariners aren’t an organization that goes to arbitration, often choosing to settle instead.

Saunders really has no control or leverage over this situation for next season or the year after. He’s under club control if the Mariners want to pay him.

If you think about it, paying Saunders around $3 million for next season is a pretty good value, given his potential and his ability to play all three outfield spots. But what’s his role?

In discussing the potential to add more offense for the upcoming season, Zduriencik mentioned the obvious – first base/DH – and then also the corner outfield positions as likely places to fill that need.

Would that make Saunders expendable or a fourth outfielder? Keeping Saunders even if you view him as a fourth outfielder and insurance in case Dustin Ackley struggles again early, isn’t a massive investment and pretty logical. He adds talent to the roster at a manageable price. The lack of legitimate outfield depth behind him – Jones, Romero and that’s about it – make it even more reasonable to keep him.

Zduriencik was adamant that the organization isn’t moving on.

“We want him to be good player,” Zduriencik said. “You look at his skillset and he has all the tools to be a really good player. He’s well thought of by people in this organization. Nothing would make us more happy than seeing Michael become the player that we think can be. We’ve given him opportunities and he’s shown flashes but the injuries have slowed him. We want him to get to that next level of being a player that is there for a full season.”

Asked if he feels that the organization should move on from Saunders via trade, McCann paused for a moment, and said, “I’m not going to comment on that.”

Much of Saunders’ future with the organization could be based on possible offseason acquisitions.

If Saunders does return, he’s professional enough for it not to be an issue. He gets it. And he’s too competitive to dog it. He will play hard and likely not be a problem.

But it can’t be the same for a guy that has the longest tenure in the organization besides Felix Hernandez.

The feeling of being disrespected doesn’t automatically disappear with a conversation, a handshake or playing time. Sometimes it never goes away.

There is no easy answer or simple solution. The Mariners expect more from Michael Saunders and he expects more from the Mariners.

Where do they go from here?

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