TORONTO – Michael Saunders calls the upcoming season "a bit of a redemption year." His left knee, the one torn up by an errant sprinkler-head last spring, feels strong again. On Sunday, he planned to leave for Dunedin, Fla., to essentially begin his spring training. And even after the Toronto Blue Jays traded Ben Revere to the Washington Nationals for Drew Storen, he’s taking nothing about 2016 for granted.
"Going in to spring training you always have to feel like you’re competing for a job and whether or not a trade went down (Friday) night, I was going to go into spring training competing for the starting job in left field," Saunders said Saturday ahead of Baseball Canada’s annual awards banquet. "My mindset hasn’t changed despite the trade, and obviously in order to add players you have to be willing to give up players. We clearly added a great arm in the bullpen and the Nationals got a great outfielder."
Of course in making the trade, the Blue Jays needed to feel confident that Saunders was ready to handle the load in left field. While they also have Dalton Pompey, Ezequiel Carrera and Junior Lake, he is the most accomplished option.
Over the past few months, Saunders’ recovery from the torn meniscus that led to surgery and a bone bruise that ultimately shut him down last year, has given them confidence that he’ll be fine. Among other exercises, he’s running, and after rehabbing at home in Denver, he’s going to continue working with the Blue Jays staff in Dunedin upon his arrival down south.
General manager Ross Atkins said Saturday that the club’s medical team "feels extremely confident that he’ll be ready to go Day 1 of spring training."
Saunders insists his knee feels so good, it’s like he never had the surgery at all.
"Right now I’m doing some agility and lateral work, rounding bases, that kind of stuff, deceleration, running and slowing down on a dime, it’s reacting great thus far," he said. "As soon as the bone bruise was gone, we started my rehab process with a target date of spring training. So we’ve given it a solid three months to really condition my knee and get it ready. We’re not going 0-100, we’re taking it day by day and making sure I’m ready to go."
What kind of player he’ll be once he returns is the question.
Former general manager Alex Anthopoulos acquired him Dec. 3, 2014 with the expectation that the Victoria native would build off a strong year with the Seattle Mariners, when he batted .273/.341/.450 in 78 games.
That marked more progress from his low point in 2011, when Saunders batted .149/.207/.217 with 56 strikeouts in 58 games with the Mariners. His struggles that year caused him to reassess where things were going, and he’s been building off that base since.
"In 2011, after that season, I was debating whether or not to go over to Japan," said Saunders. "I really struggled for the first couple of years of my career in the major-leagues, and I really made the decision to not care anymore, don’t be scared to strike out, don’t be scared to make a fool of yourself out there, it’s going to happen to everybody. Once I got over playing very tentatively and scared to fail is when I was allowed to have fun, ease up a little bit and play the game.
"The biggest jump is continuing to play like you did in the minor-leagues when you first get called up, and not be playing against the names on the back of the jerseys, instead play against the names on the front. It was a big maturation process for me. It was basically when I gave myself permission to fail that I felt comfortable again and had fun playing the game."
Saunders hit a career-high 19 homers with 21 stolen bases over 139 games in 2012, and the Blue Jays feel his power should play up at the Rogers Centre. He never got the chance to show that last year, when his knee troubles limited him to just nine games.
Now, once again, he’s positioned to be the club’s everyday left-fielder, after a lost season.
"I feel like this is a bit of a redemption year," said Saunders. "I was really excited to be a Blue Jay last year, I was heartbroken when I got the injury and couldn’t play. As far as proving something, I’m not going to go out there and put any pressure on myself, I’m just going to go out there and have fun. I know what I bring to the table, it took me a long time to realize the kind of baseball player I am, but as far as proving anything, I just want to get out there, play and have fun again."