As I'm sure you're aware, the Mariners held their postmortem press conference for the 2014 season yesterday. Before it started, there were two things I was most interested in hearing comments on. One, near the top of everyone's list, is the status of the payroll—which is expected to increase. And the other was Michael Saunders.
For the second off-season in a row, the Mariners are in need of help in the outfield. The centerfield position is locked down as the club heads into 2015, but each of the corner spots are areas open to improvement. They need a guy who can get on base, hit for some power and play strong defense. They need a healthy Michael Saunders—which, of course, can't be depended upon.
Though the Mariners cannot bank on Condor staying healthy, it's hard not to hope for as he represents as good a buy-low candidate as you're going to find—without, you know, actually having to buy anything. He only played 78 games in 2014, but in those 78 games he notched a 126 wRC+, which has him tied with Kyle Seager as the second-best offensive player on the team.
So I was curious to hear what general manager Jack Zduriencik would have to say about Saunders and, thankfully, someone asked. Here's his response:
Well, like any other player, it’s up to Michael. All these guys have gained the experience, they’ve had another year under their belt. The thing with Michael has been trying to keep him on the field for the amount of time you’d like to have him. It’s unfortunate, he was playing good for us, got hurt and came back, got sick, came back again and did some nice things but, I think what Michael has to do and has to answer to himself is "how do I prepare myself to play as many games through the course of 162 that I can possibly play without being set back with injuries?" Some are freak injuries, some are things that just happen, but some of these things need to be handled from a maintenance standpoint where he puts himself in a position to compete throughout the course of a season.
There's nothing outrageous here, but you have to give pause at the second half of it, where Jack is clearly hinting at his belief that some of Saunders' injuries may have been preventable. And that alone is probably not noteworthy, but he doubled down and said almost the exact same thing in other appearances yesterday.
After praising Saunders' skill-set initially in an appearance on The Steve Sandmeyer Show, Zduriencik had this to say on the outfielder:
I think the biggest challenge with Michael has been trying to keep him healthy. I think he had 230-some at-bats this year, through the course of the season when you were hoping he’d have 500-600. I think that’s been the issue, not only this year but in years gone by so, the challenge for Michael is to prepare himself to be able to play a complete season. Now, some injuries are freak injuries—other injuries are injuries that are, you know, could they have been prevented and I think that’s something for Michael to answer. But he’s a talented player, he’s a very, very nice young man and, do I hope Michael’s a part of this thing? Of course I do. But it’s up to Michael to put himself in a position where he can play through the course of a full season.
He said the same thing to Softy on KJR, and I'd link and transcribe that, but they're having some issues getting the audio online.
Still, you have to wonder if there's some level of friction here, potentially an issue that's been lurking since last off-season.
Early in 2014, people were upset with manager Lloyd McClendon when he, despite no experience with Saunders, said he was the type of guy who needed to sit every four days or so. People were grumpy, didn't believe it—and then Saunders got hurt twice and missed half the season anyway. Though, I will acknowledge, I'm not certain that goes all the way towards explaining him sitting for non-injury reasons.
As they did for much of yesterday, now is the time to look ahead, to 2015 and what might be in store. As Ryan Divish notes in his piece asking if we may have seen Saunders' last game in a Mariners uniform, he notes that, despite the injury issues, he's still due for a raise—and, as a second-year arb guy, that should get him up around $3 million. For a team that should be spending $100 million, at least, that isn't an enormous sum, but it is enough to make the front office look hard at what they're getting in return.
At this point, it's hard to say. If he stays healthy, it could be a four- or five-win player, a multi-dimensional outfielder unlike any we've seen around these parts in a few years. If he doesn't, that could be money headed to someone else, either a similar player or tacked onto the offer for an elite-level talent.
And if there is some friction there, something Zduriencik is trying to send a message about, you have to wonder how much that's weighed into the decision on what exactly Michael Saunders' role is on the 2015 Mariners. That's the thing, sometimes these press conferences are about sending messages. Sometimes they work, and other times they blow up in your face.
Even more frequently, it's all just noise. That's what 95 percent of the off-season is anyway. But that's where we are now, and this is a situation worth watching.