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Orioles rumors: Michael Saunders has “definite interest” to team

The Orioles keep saying they’re looking to improve outfield defense and find a lefty outfielder. Michael Saunders could check both boxes at once.

MLB: ALCS-Cleveland Indians at Toronto Blue Jays
Michael Saunders hit 24 homers for the Blue Jays this year.
John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Two things that have been consistently said about the Orioles this offseason are that they’re looking to improve their outfield defense and that they’re looking to get a left-handed hitting outfielder. In MASN’s Roch Kubatko’s report that the Orioles have “definite interest” in Michael Saunders, recently of the Blue Jays, they’re seemingly aiming to solve both of those at once.

The 30-year-old outfielder is coming off of a 2016 season in which he posted career full-season highs all across his batting line: a .253/.338/.478 in a career-high 140 games with a career-high 24 home runs.

Those are some solid numbers, although they come with the drawback that he just put up a career year at age 29. The risk in signing him would be that he’s not going to be that good again because he’s never been that good before. Saunders has only topped 130 games played in three seasons. He will miss time because he always misses time.

On the other hand, some players are late bloomers, and maybe Saunders, signed to a three year contract and left alone at the same position for three years without being jerked around, is getting ready to blossom in a big way for the team that secures his services.

Would Saunders actually improve the outfield defense if he was placed in right field at Camden Yards? Looking at his defensive data on Fangraphs, it’s hard to say. There are a lot of negative numbers next to his name there, but much of the problem over his career is that the Mariners put him in center field.

OK, so Saunders is just not a center fielder - that doesn’t mean he can’t do a good job playing right field. He has, at least, logged 980 career innings in right field, about 18% of his total career innings. In recent years, he posted a +7 DRS in 480 innings in 2014 and a -5 DRS in 172.1 innings this past season, where he played most of the time in left field and was pretty bad there also (-7).

That’s not so good... as is the fact that I didn’t mention 2015 at all because Saunders only played nine games.

Oh yeah, and Saunders only batted .178/.282/.357 after the All-Star Game. So which is the real Saunders? The guy who had a .923 OPS in the first half or the guy who stunk in the second half? He’s probably going to be somewhere between the two. But if he’s yet another boom-or-bust player prone to lots of strikeouts (28.1% of his 2016 plate appearances) and long funks, well. That’s just not exciting.

Yet there’s going to be a potential downside to any free agent signing or trade target. The Orioles have to gauge what risks are worth taking and what ones aren’t. If they’re always scared of the downsides, they’ll never have any chance to improve at all because they’ll never take any chances.

In Saunders’ case, it seems like they should be wary, but it is possible that they see him as a lefty who will really break out when he gets to play half of his games at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. And they might be right! It wouldn’t be the first time we have seen that happen in recent years. Mark Trumbo, who Saunders would replace, isn’t even a lefty and he just pulled the same move.

As long as the Orioles aren’t being persuaded by things like this from Kubatko’s post, which they probably aren’t:

It also might be wise to get him on their side.

Playing for the Blue Jays this summer, Saunders hit three home runs with eight RBIs against the Orioles on June 17. He connected twice off Ubaldo Jimenez and took Mike Wright deep to complete the trifecta.

I can tell you one thing that won’t be happening if the Orioles sign Saunders: He won’t get many opportunities to rack up any more three-homer games against Ubaldo Jimenez and Mike Wright.

MLB Trade Rumors predicts that Saunders will end up signing a three year, $33 million contract. They pegged him as an Orioles guy in early November, and it’s a prediction that makes sense. Saunders at $11 million per year isn’t THAT expensive and he’s enough of a name that the Orioles could point at him and act like they’ve done something really significant.

One interesting positive for Saunders, though it’s probably a small sample size, is that, despite his being a lefty batter, he turned in a .927 OPS in 123 PA against lefties this past season. That’s an aberration compared to his career splits, so it’s probably not something worth counting on.

The Orioles were bad against lefties and will continue to be bad with or without Saunders. At least if you’re going to suck against one type of pitcher, it’s better that it’s lefties because there aren’t as many of them out there.