A few years ago, I ranked Michael Saunders very high on the list of Canadian prospects (yes, even ahead of Brett Lawrie). I was impressed with his athleticism and his improving minor league batting record. Unfortunately his major league trials since them have been disappointing and he has spent a lot of the past two seasons in AAA. But with the continued absence of Franklyn Gutierrez, Saunders has stepped into the everyday centerfielder job. I expect him to remain there even when Gutierrez returns.
Drafted in the 11th round in 2004, Saunders' baseball skills have been playing catch up to his athletic skills. Built like a decathlete, Saunders is deceptively fast: his long strides remind me of Devon White on the base-paths and in the field. He has the speed to be a defensive asset in center for the next few years, but his reads and jumps are some distance from top notch. Because of his size, he is not going to steal tons of bases, though his success rate has been good.
With the bat, Saunders is not a free-swinger (his walk rates are good for a young player), but strikeouts have limited his effectiveness in previous major league trials. This season, I've noticed his swing isn't as long as it's been in years past, though his strikeout rate remains high (28.4%). The tendency to chase pitches out of the zone is still evident, so I don't expect a dramatic reduction in that strikeout rate.
Saunders has the potential to hit for a lot of power. This is his progression in at-bats per extra base hit:
A ball (2005-07): 986 AB, 88 xbh =11.2 Ab/xbh
AA (2007-08): 300 AB, 33 xbh = 9.1 ab/xbh
AAA(2008-11): 659 ab, 60 xbh = 11.0 ab/xbh
SEATTLE(2009-11): 572 ab, 34xbh = 16.8 ab/xbh
THIS SEASON: 79 ab, 12 xbh = 6.6 ab/xbh
That is 12 extra base hits with only 7 singles this season: I don't think that can be sustained. If his ab/xbh rate settles in around 9.0 and he can maintain his decent walk rate (723 lifetime PAs, 62 walks), he will be a valuable asset to the Mariners, despite his home park working against him.
Saunders is 25 years old and should be entering his prime. He still appears to me to be more raw talent than finished product. If he can whittle away some of those weaknesses, we might be looking at a very good player 3 or 4 years from now.