2011 Player Development: Michael Saunders

In this series, SeattleClubhouse takes a look at prospects that made big improvements in 2011 for the Mariners. I've already covered Michael Pineda, Dustin Ackley and Mike Carp in prior pieces. The fourth installment below is a focus on Michael Saunders.

Michael Saunders--a holdover from the Bill Bavasi drafts--has had a couple of extended looks at the big league level, but he hasn't shown over an extended period that he can be an impact player. The struggles this season led to a demotion to Triple-A where Saunders was tasked with increasing his plate discipline, making more consistent contact and driving the ball to left field.

SeattleClubhouse was on hand this summer in Tacoma to see him do just that--he hit a ringing line drive double to the left center gap in a game in August against a tough pitcher, and he consistently used that part of the field during his time in Tacoma. After the All-Star break the 24-year-old outfielder hit .312/.441/.510 in the offense-heavy Pacific Coast League and walked 50 times, including drawing 36 walks in a 48 game stretch at one point. The strikeouts continued to be a problem for him in Tacoma (71 strikeouts in 64 games) and they have continued to plague him since his September recall (seven strikeouts in 16 plate appearances so far).

While the overall body of work isn't exactly the stuff of legend, Saunders underwent two complete swing changes in 2011 and, almost certainly more trying on him, he lost his mother in August (she was only 50) after nearly a decade of battling breast cancer. And let us not forget that although Saunders now has been given parts of three seasons and over 600 trips to the plate at the big league level, he won't turn 25 until after the 2011 season ends.

While his line in Seattle this season is just .155/.217/.230, and while the strikeout numbers (49 in 148 at bats) are downright scary, it is important for fans to remember that Michael Saunders still has some very promising tools. He has plus power, plus speed and is a plus defender in a corner, at least average in center field. And he hits left-handed, can bunt as a weapon and can run the bases. But he needs to get his head clear and focus on playing the game between the lines, particularly in the batter's box.

This series of pieces is about improvements made in 2011. Although it hasn't really shown itself at the big league level, I do believe that the changes with his swing and in his approach that Michael Saunders still has a shot to turn into a good major league outfielder. He has more tools than any other young outfielder that has been up for the M's this season, it is just a matter of him putting it together and being consistent.

I believe he will still get a chance in the big leagues. I'm not sure that the chance will come as a member of the Seattle Mariners, however.

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