Michael Saunders seems to have been thrust into the role of the Mariners' fourth outfielder. Scott wrote a post about it this morning. You should read it if you haven't already. I'm not here to give my opinion about this turn of events. Lloyd clearly wants to see what LoMo can do in the outfield, and Lloyd knows a lot more about baseball than I do. If LoMo is bad, he'll stop playing as much and Saunders will shift back to the outfield and everyone will be happy (except LoMo, but I'm honestly not too worried about his feelings). What I am here to talk about is a sentiment I've seen repeated rather regularly around here: that, while Saunders has been a bright light through some pretty dark times for this ballclub, he's not a starting outfielder on a competing team, and as the Mariners are at the point where they're starting to get competitive, he should probably not be starting. I don't really think that's true, but I haven't actually seen any real evidence one way or another, so I'm here to examine the validity of that statement.
First, let's establish Michael Saunders as a player. Michael Saunders plays all three outfield positions with some regularity. His UZR numbers vary very widely from year to year and position to position, but their combination and the eye test agree that he's average to below average in center and above average in the corners. With positional adjustments, that translates to somewhere between -7.5 and 2.5 runs above average on defense over the course of a season. Michael Saunders is fast. He doesn't steal a lot of bases, but he's generally a smart baserunner, and he's been worth between 0 and 5 runs on the bases every year since his first. It seems reasonable to pencil him in for 1-2 runs on the bases over a full year of play.
Michael Saunders hits right handed pitching pretty well, and left handed pitching not quite as well. His career splits have him at a 92 wRC+ against righties and a 73 wRC+ against lefties. There are several indicators that he's better than those numbers, however. In 2012, he had a wRC+ of 108. He showed a reverse platoon split that year, but those generally take multiple years to stabilize, and as he hasn't done the same in other years, it's unlikely to mean anything. In 2013, he posted a 106 wRC+ against righties and an 82 wRC+ against lefties for a combined 98. He was also injured in April and his stats seem to have suffered because of it, hitting very poorly in May and June, but posting a wRC+ of 118 in the second half. All of this means that Saunders is probably a bit above average against righties and a bit below average against lefties. Since about 3/4 of MLB pitchers are right handed, this means he projects overall as somewhere between average and slightly above average. Steamer and ZiPS both project him to be around league average with his bat, and neither incorporate the circumstances surrounding his injury last year, so that projection seems pretty reasonable. This comes out to somewhere between -3 and 7 runs of offense for a full season.
Using all of those numbers, Saunders comes out to between 1.1 and 3.2 WAR over 600 PA. He's never played that much in a season and the floor and ceiling there aren't terribly likely, but that provides a reasonable expectation of how well he'll play when he is playing, and the question we're trying to answer is whether he'd start on a contending team, so we only really care about how he'll play when he's healthy and playing.
Now, let's look at contending teams. I'm going to set an arbitrary cutoff and say that a team is considered a contender if FanGraphs has their playoff odds at over 33%. That leaves us with fourteen teams contending for ten playoff spots and provides a decent sample of "contenders to look at. So, without further ado, let's look at them (all projections and depth chart information courtesy of FanGraphs, note that projections are for overall production from a position, not the player(s) listed):
CF: Desmond Jennings (3.0 WAR)
RF: Wil Myers (2.9 WAR)
That LF platoon is pretty terrible. Saunders would at the very least replace DeJesus as the starter against righties, and he's probably better than Guyer against lefties too.
CF: Grady Sizemore/Jackie Bradley Jr. (1.7) WAR
RF: Shane Victorino (2.7 WAR)
The Red Sox clearly believe in Sizemore more than the projections, and he's the type of player who's hard to project, so it's unlikely that Saunders would be the starting center fielder, but regular starts in left are certainly not out of the question. He's good enough to at least be the large side of a platooon there.
LF: Rajai Davis/Andy Dirks (.7 WAR)
CF: Austin Jackson (3.4 WAR)
RF Torii Hunter (2.0 WAR)
Saunders probably wouldn't start over Hunter in right, but he's a very similar player to Dirks who would either be starting full time or platooning with Davis and getting most of the playing time if he weren't injured. The Tigers would probably trade one of them if they had both, but hypothetical Tiger Saunders would probably be a starter.
LF: Michael Brantley (1.6 WAR)
CF: Michael Bourn (2.9 WAR)
The Indians are starting two guys who are basically Michael Saunders already. It's possible that he could be a marginal upgrade over either of them, but the point here is that the Indians are starting two guys who are basically Michael Saunders and they made the playoffs last year.
That's right. Mariners. Contender. You heard it here first. Well, actually, you most certainly didn't, but it's pretty clear that there is a reasonable chance this year. You all know what's going on here. Nobody would fault the M's for starting Saunders regularly, and many would prefer it.
LF: Yoenis Cespedes (2.9 WAR)
RF: Josh Reddick (2.9 WAR)
OK. The A's probably couldn't use him. They have three left-handed outfielders at least as good as Saunders and about 50 million guys to platoon with them
LF: Shin-Soo Choo (3.3 WAR)
CF: Leonys Martin (2.8 WAR)
RF: Alex Rios (1.4 WAR)
The numbers say that Saunders should platoon with Rios, but that projection for Rios seems really low. Saunders would probably be the Rangers' fourth outfielder.
LF: Josh Hamilton (2.0 WAR)
CF: The Devil (∞ WAR)
RF: Kole Calhoun/Collin Cowgill (1.7 WAR)
Calhoun seems to have more upside than Saunders and is probably a bit underestimated by this projection. The rest of the outfield is making too much money to not start, as much as I would prefer if the Angels started Michael Saunders in center rather than the current guy.
LF: Bryce Harper (4.4 WAR)
CF: Denard Span (3.2 WAR)
RF: Jayson Werth (2.6 WAR)
The Nationals have a really good outfield. Saunders isn't better than any of these guys and would probably take a 4th OF role here.
LF: Justin Upton (2.6 WAR)
CF: B.J. Upton 1.8 WAR
CF: Jayson Werth (4.0 WAR)
Saunders is probably better than B.J. Upton at this point. Whether they would play him at this point depends more on money and is less certain, but he certainly would be a starter in their optimal outfield arrangement if they had him.
LF: Starling Marte (3.0 WAR)
CF: Andrew McCutchen (6.3 WAR)
RF: Jose Tabata (1.5 WAR)
Saunders is better than Tabata, so he would start for the Pirates, at least until Polanco comes up at the end of the year.
LF: Matt Holliday (3.7 WAR)
RF: Alan Craig/Shane Robinosn (2.7 WAR)
The Cardinals have a lot of depth. Saunders is better than Craig in the outfield, but Craig is blocked at first by Adams and the NL has no DH. Oscar Taveras will also probably be up by the end of the year, at which point Saunders certainly wouldn't be starting. He'd make a better fourth outfielder than Jay though.
LF: Michael Morse (.4 WAR)
CF: Angel Pagan (2.5 WAR)
RF: Hunter Pence (2.5 WAR)
Yes. That's right. Michael Morse is the starting left fielder for a team with a 57.5% chance of making the playoffs. Nothing else needs to be said.
LF: Carl Crawford (2.5 WAR)
CF: Matt Kemp/Andre Ethier (3.3 WAR)
RF: Yasiel Puig (4.4 WAR)
The Dodgers outfield is stacked. They have three excellent starters, a fourth that would be starting on pretty much any other team, and two good prospects that they can't find room for. Saunders wouldn't even make the team.
So there you have it. Fourteen contending teams. Saunders would definitely be a starter on 5 (Rays, Tigers, Indians, Braves, Giants), would have a decent shot on 4 more (Red Sox, Mariners, Rangers, Pirates), and be relegated to a fourth outfielder role or worse on 5 (A's, Angels, Nationals, Cardinals, Dodgers). The Condor may not be a star, but he'd be a starter on plenty of good teams. It also says quite a lot about the Mariners' outfield, an area that was supposed to be our biggest weakness but looks better than a lot of these other outfields. If Ackley and Almonte don't preform, that obviously rings less true, but then we have Saunders to play in their place if need be. Things look pretty good.