Seattle Mariners outfielder Michael Saunders had a very difficult year in 2011, losing his mother, Jane, to cancer off the field and losing battles with opposing pitchers and his own hitting mechanics on the field. The outfielder -- who was rated as the 30th best prospect in baseball by Baseball America prior to the 2010 season -- spent most of the 2011 season in Triple-A Tacoma trying to right himself, mentally and physically.
He took some personal time, as well he should have, but when he got back to playing baseball every day, he did well at the plate for the Rainiers, hitting .312/.441/.510 in the Pacific Coast League's second half. Those numbers by themselves don't tell the whole story of his success, however. He wasn't just hitting the ball well -- he was hitting it where it was pitched. It was an improvement, but he still wasn't a finished product at the plate.
One of Saunders' biggest weaknesses once he arrived in the major leagues was that his long stride and desire to pull the ball left him exposed to off-speed pitches and pitches away from him. He wasn't showing the ability to hit the ball the other way at all, and the book quickly got around on him.
But Saunders -- who turned 25 over the winter -- didn't stop working. He moved to a Denver suburb near ex-teammate Josh Bard and got hooked up with a hitting coach to work on fixing the flaws in his approach and his mechanics. That hitting coach is Bard's brother, Mike Bard, an instructor with 13 years of Division I coaching experience and a former assistant hitting coach with the Colorado Rockies that has trained several big leaguers. Bard got Saunders to rework his stance to better incorporate his strengths as an athlete, standing more erect and more closed in the box and quieting his stride to let his hands and his lower-half do the work.
The results of those changes to this point have been fantastic for Saunders. He had three walks and three extra base hits during the M's intrasquad games and following his two-double (to left and left-center field) game yesterday, Michael is now hitting .409/.458/.682 in eight Cactus League games while showing much-improved plate coverage. A shorter swing and a body more in-unison at the plate is the fruit that Saunders is baring from his months of work with Bard that included resistance bands for his lower half and a 60-ounce bat.
Of course, with starting center fielder Franklin Gutierrez on the shelf to start 2012, there is more than just hope for Saunders, there is once again a need for him in the Mariners' lineup and outfield. Saunders is easily the club's best equipped option to play center with Gutierrez out. Always seen as a good defender, even when he was struggling at the plate in the majors, Saunders gets good reads in the outfield, has good range and a plus throwing arm.
With Casper Wells -- who has played CF in the past -- likely to see most of his time doing some kind of platoon split with Mike Carp in left field, Saunders is the most likely option to be the primary center fielder for the Mariners while Gutierrez is healing. This could very well be the left-handed hitter's last chance to stick with Seattle, and he knows it. He told MLB.com's Greg John's earlier this month, "I feel like I answered my own questions. Now I need to answer other people's questions."
That confidence is something that was lacking in Saunders last year. And it is something that shouldn't be discounted in any ballplayer. The question isn't about his ability. The club knows that he can hit. "The talent has never been an issue for him," M's Manager Eric Wedge told Johns. It's just a matter of Saunders finally putting it all together and living up to that once high prospect status.
Now that he is right mentally and physically, Michael Saunders is ready to grab a major league job and not let go.