Six games, two starts.
As the season begun, it was a little unclear as to how the outfield/DH rotation was going to play out. While Lloyd McClendon once had visions of Corey Hart manning the outfield, those seemed to pass as his knees didn't look so hot. Abraham Almonte appeared to be pet project, penciled into the leadoff spot more often than not. Dustin Ackley's job didn't seem to be in question, and most assumed he would be a near-everyday guy there. The inclusion of Stefen Romero only complicated things further, but only in right.
How the situation has shaken out so far is interesting.
Saunders has the same amount of starts as Romero, but he's still gotten into every game. In fact, he's even gotten an at-bat in all but one of the six games, so you may not have noticed his overall exclusion from the Mariners lineup. But in reality, he's contributing at the plate about half as much as Abraham Almonte (14 PA vs. 31 PA), and it's pretty clear that his role, as things stand now, has settled into an occasional platoon hitter/defensive substitution.
Meanwhile, there's no doubt about Dustin Ackley and Abraham Almonte. They're everyday players, and they're being treated as such. Almonte is not only the Mariners center fielder, but he's the leadoff hitter. He hasn't been subbed once. If he starts to struggle at the plate, that could change -- but for now, he's straight up stolen that job from Saunders.
Saunders doesn't appear to be winning any time in left field, either. Ackley has carried his strong second half of 2013 into 2014, and he's holding his own defensively after an awkward transition last season. At this point, if the intention was to give Ackley regular rest or platoon him, it would have been seen by now. Stefen Romero played a ton of left field in Tacoma (and barely any right field) but he slid into right -- not left.
Right field has been the only outfield position in flux, with Romero getting the nod against lefties and Saunders/Morrison figuring things out otherwise. But Morrison has gotten twice the starts Saunders has (including DH), and once Corey Hart gets his health back, who will shift to being the primary right fielder? With Morrison/Hart each touting four starts, it might not be Saunders.
Even though Saunders is getting into games, it seems fairly evident that his days as an everyday player -- or even close to it -- are over. He's still a valuable player to carry as somebody that can hit some and play all three positions, and his defensive substitutions have come earlier rather than later in games. Subbing in Saunders in the 7th inning instead of the 9th is a nice luxury to have, as it allows McClendon to make the move right away instead of later, knowing that Saunders isn't a big liability at the plate if the offense happens to bat around quicker than expected after subbing out Morrison/Romero.
Of all the players who have gotten many chances to break out, it's Saunders that has seen his playing time cut first. It may not last, and if Logan Morrison doesn't start to hit, his inflexibility will likely see him ticketed to Tacoma before any other potential struggling bats. If Morrison is the more recent version of himself as opposed to the 2010-2011 version, Saunders is clearly more valuable starting regularly in right over him. But while the Mariners try to figure that out, Saunders is being utilized in a close to ideal way.
It's interesting to see how this crowded situation shakes out, but as the year goes on, things have a good chance of sorting themselves out with poor performances and injury. Everyone's healthy right now and most everyone is hitting, but that won't last forever. Maybe Saunders is used in that big offseason trade we all waited for, but never got. Either way, we have a good idea of where Michael Saunders currently sits in Lloyd McClendon's pecking order, and it's well below Dustin Ackley and Abraham Almonte.