On Michael Saunders and Defying Expectations

There were high expectations for the Toronto Blue Jays coming into the 2016 season. The end to 2015 was thrilling, and the Jays had made the playoffs for the first time in 22 years. Most of that exciting team was coming back, and there were even places a couple of places where you’d expect improvement. Notably, the Jays would get a full seasons of Troy Tulowitzki and Marcus Stroman, and acquisitions like J.A. Happ, Jesse Chavez, and Drew Storen were coming in to fortify the pitching staff.

No one knew what to expect from Michael Saunders. After a 2015 season where he had a disastrous injury, it wasn’t even certain he’d make the roster. But, the new front office extended a contract (at $2.9 million), ensuring he’d be on the team, by hook or by crook. The floor for Saunders was very low, and the ceiling uncertain for someone who had no cartilage in his knee. Would he start? Could they keep him as a bench player? He was almost traded to Cincinnati, suggesting that the front office may have shared in the skepticism.

Yet, Michael Saunders had a career year…by every measurement. Though his bad second half might obscure our perspective, the whole picture tells a different story. Saunders had career highs in games played, doubles, home runs, and OPS. It led to a season that was a triumph for the player, and a very pleasant surprise for the team. For a few months, he provided a left-handed bat that the Jays sorely needed, hitting early on when several mainstays (Russell Martin and Troy Tulowitzki chief among them) scuffled badly. He helped keep the offense afloat while the pillars of the Jays found their way, earning a trip to the All-Star game for his work.

Saunders struggled after the break, and the Jays probably knew they were playing with house money. He’d been all All-Star for half the year. Although many of us here had Saunders as a comeback candidate in our early season predictions, I don’t think anyone expected Saunders to be THAT good in those first few months. He was a star, often the best hitter on a team that had several elite sluggers already.

The Jays have a lot of questions this off-season, with several important free agents. Most of the discussion has (rightfully) centered around Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, with the occasional nod to the longest serving Blue Jay, Brett Cecil. Saunders, too, will hit the open market, and given his mixed season, it’s hard to predict what kind of contract he might get. At 29, he’s not too old, but he’s had several injuries, and that knee has to be worrisome in the long term. Saunders also probably plays older than he is, which will deflate his value. The fact that the team DH’d him over Bautista in the playoffs was a strategic move (because they were more likely to pinch-hit for Saunders), but also a commentary on his sub-par defense. The Jays carried five outifelders down the stretch so they could sub for both Bautista AND him late in games.

There doesn’t seem to be a reservoir of affection for Saunders from Jays fans; no segment of diehards clamoring for his return. That is both fine and understandable. Although he’s Canadian (which earns some extra points from the flag-waving section), he’s really only had one season with the team, and seems reserved on a club with loud personalities and social media stars. He doesn’t give memorable interviews, doesn’t have a must-follow Instagram account, nor does he have his own Twitter hashtag. He’s not visible. He just does his job.

It’s hard to picture Saunders being back with the team in 2017, given his past injuries, his potential cost, and the uncertain expectations that any team should still have of him. He’s always been more potential than actual, more sizzle than steak. He was easy to dream on, with all the physical tools one wants in an outfielder, though he was never as good as they hoped in Seattle. And now, there’s still a wide range of potential outcomes. Is he the All-Star, getting halfway to an elite season, slugging lefthanders and righthanders with equal aplomb? Or, is he more the second half Saunders, struggling as pitchers throw him soft stuff away, unable to adjust? A brief playoff renaissance suggests that Saunders still has the slugging gene in him, that the first half was not entirely a mirage, born of hot streaks and “seeing the ball well” as network analysts might say. Given his less than stellar defense, he might be best suited as a DH, which isn’t great for someone who will only turn 30 in November.

Expectations are a strange thing, at times. We expected the Jays to be better than they were during the season, though they still made it to the ALCS for the second year in a row. This was a team that could have made the World Series, but like in 2015, ran into a team that simply played better. After a bad September, most probably had the Jays ticketed for an early exit, so an ALCS berth was probably a pleasant surprise.

Michael Saunders was an afterthought coming into spring training, but definitely exceeded most expectations this year. An All-Star and a slugger, at times, more than earning the relative pittance the team paid him, and making up for a lost 2015 that had his career in jeopardy. If this is the end Michael, I bid you adieu, and provide thanks for your carrying this team on your back, while others were falling by the wayside. Brief as that time may have been.

Lead Photo: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

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