Michael Saunders' agent is unhappy.
That's the brief lede, the tl;dr summary of the latest Mariners drama set to unfold over what are going to be five excruciating months before the first pitch of 2015's Spring Training has been thrown. It's thankfully not the most damning thing that could have emerged out of the strange final months of the M's unpredictably successful 2014, nor will it be the biggest story of the offseason. The sheer number of similar incidents to this that go unreported are probably stacked pile-high.
But it's still kind of a bummer considering the fact that the Condor was statistically the Mariners' best outfielder in 2014 (126 wRC+ and 1.9 fWAR in only 78 games), and everyone seemed to understand that all while he was being regularly benched during a stretch run that clearly could have used his bat in the middle of the order. And from the sounds of it, Michael Saunders understood that too.
After the M's season came to a heartbreaking end, Jack Z and Lloyd gathered together for their end-of-the-year press conference to discuss plans for the 2015 season, touching on Saunders' absence. To Zduriencik, the problem this year was that Saunders is simply an injury-prone player, and that he perhaps needs a better strength and conditioning routine in order to become a regular contributor to an outfield situation that has clearly yet to solve itself:
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 be able to compete through the course of a season...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 by injuries?
Lloyd echoed these comments shortly after, adding that he hoped Saunders would "hit the weight room" in the offseason so that, I don't know, he could withstand running into a wall at full speed without hurting himself or something, I guess. And do note that the headline of the story including these quotes is "Mariners hope Saunders can stay healthy, play every day," with a subheading of: "Organization believes oft-injured outfielder has talent to be consistent starter."
But a different side came out in a piece from Jason Churchill over at CBS Seattle, after, you know, hearing from a different side. Saunders' agent, Mike McCann, explained to Churchill that no one in the organization had ever expressed any concern over Saunders preparedness or health. Zduriencik's comments were literally the first time hearing about this. Here's McCann:
Michael works extremely hard to prepare himself physically. He came into spring training this past year in the best shape of his life. Nobody is as disappointed as Michael is with the time he missed. It’s discouraging Michael injured himself chasing a ball down, making the catch and slamming into the wall. I think you ask most clubs, ‘do you want a player willing to sacrifice himself to make a play?’
So where does this leave us? Obviously, the Mariners are trying to build a quality major-league outfield right now, and it seems likely that Austin Jackson is the only name written down in pen. And they clearly value Saunders--that's for certain. We shouldn't pretend like we all have access to some magic computer numbers that the professionals are too dumb to use or understand. No, the running narrative is that Saunders' post-DL bench time was in order to sustain his body, apparently now conceived of as wrapped in a thin layer of bubblewrap straight from Franklin Gutierrez' locker, because he isn't currently healthy enough to be an every-day contributor.
Zduriencik concluded by stating that it was up to Michael Saunders to "earn his way" back into the lineup. That has an eerily similar ring to how this franchise handled spring training with a roster jammed full of inexperienced young guys, all chasing the carrot of Earning It leading out to the big-league field. It clearly worked then, and it was still seen working as a sort of philosophy all throughout the season when Brad Miller was benched for the up-and-coming Chris Taylor. No job was safe. Pressure from the bottom up. Let it be known publicly that the roster spot is up for grabs in order to incentivize the player into wanting it.
But Michael Saunders isn't a rookie, and it's not spring training anymore. He will be entering his seventh season in the majors next year, and because he avoided arbitration with a now expired one-year, $2.3 million dollar contract last January, he is probably to be more expensive than an Earn-It-Or-Lose-It kind of player. The Mariners can either enter arbitration with him in the middle of what is supposed to be a spendy free agency, or they can non-tender him a contract to avoid the whole thing, making him a free agent in the process with the intent that he just re-sign with the home team. Tell me which situation you'd like to be in as a slightly peeved two-plus-win corner outfielder entering the prime of his career. Or which side you'd like to be on as a club explaining to an arbitrator why you can't pay your oft-injured outfielder more than $3 million dollars.
Clearly the Mariners don't feel that Michael Saunders as he currently stands is healthy enough to be their starting right fielder. That's fine, and honestly is probably the best course of action at the moment. But it seems most likely that the Mariners are trying to poke and prod Michael Saunders to do something he may not even need to do so that they can either feel comfortable giving him more money in another one-year contract, or have ammo in the bag for what will be a strange arbitration case.
The thing is that that MLB.com headline is true. I'm sure the Mariners hope that Michael Saunders can stay healthy and play every day. But both "earning it" and communicating poorly before a possible arbitration case sure is a damn bizarre way to see that hope come to life. And depending on how this whole thing goes, it may not be only Michael Saunders' agent who is unhappy.