PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. – Michael Saunders arrived at spring training as a question mark. Then a trade that collapsed at the finish line just as camp was starting nearly relocated him. The requisite hubbub ensued. Understandably, everyone wondered what it all meant for the Canadian left-fielder.
A month later, with opening day of the 2016 season in sight, the messy episode is no longer front and centre in his narrative. With a solid showing in camp, Saunders has answered any lingering doubt about the strength of his surgically-repaired left knee. He’s also given the Toronto Blue Jays reason to be happy the agreed-upon three-way trade with the Los Angeles Angels and Cincinnati Reds broke down.
The potential the Blue Jays saw when they acquired him two off-seasons ago may be ready to emerge.
“He’s looked very good,” said manager John Gibbons. “It wasn’t too long ago we thought he was out in Anaheim, you know? Now he turns around, he’s still here, he put that all behind him and he’s played great. He’s playing better than I anticipated, to be honest with you, especially early in camp. He was just playing better and healthier from the get-go. His timing was good, I expected him to be limping around a little bit, every now and then, but he hasn’t done that.”
What he’s done, at least to this point, is show that he can not only survive the daily rigour of the 162-game grind, but possibly thrive, too. After an 0-for-3 in Sunday’s 7-3 win over the Tampa Bay Rays, Saunders is batting .308 this spring with three homers and 10 RBIs - numbers more important for what they say about process than anything else.
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The Victoria native played in just nine games last season after a step on an errant sprinkler head on a spring practice field led to a meniscus tear in his knee, leaving concerns about rust as well as health. A two-homer game against the Philadelphia Phillies on March 5 quickly changed the conversation, and while the test of the regular season will be the ultimate barometer, to this point signs are positive.
"If anything, it was important for my confidence," Saunders said of the multi-homer game. "It was a question, obviously, everyone asked me when I first got here: ‘Do you think you’re going to be behind?’ I very well could have been after missing so long, but I thought it was going to be like riding a bike again.
"I thought my eye was going to be there, it was whether or not my swing was going to be there, getting the barrel out, timing pitches. It was definitely good for me to hit the ball hard for my confidence and my psyche, more than anything. That took off a lot of pressure instead of going 0-for-15 and starting to wonder."
Still, there is some wonder about what happens after a couple of months on the Rogers Centre turf, about whether the pounding wears him down, about how things look come summer time.
Only his continued performance over an extended period can eliminate that.
Of course there’s additional motivation to be found in that, and in his desire to perform for the team he cheered on and dreamed of playing for while growing up. A freak injury on a substandard field cost him that chance last year.
Even before arriving at spring training and the failed trade that would have landed Jay Bruce, Saunders was describing 2016 as a redemption year.
"I can feed off that, for sure. I don’t usually need a reason, but I guess it’s nice to have one," he said. "I want to show everybody why Toronto traded for me last year. I was able to play nine games, be it basically on one leg, last year. I want to prove to everybody that I’m here for a reason. And for me, too. Being able to watch the guys last year was the best of a bad situation, but it’s nice to be able to battle with them now, and I’m really looking forward to the season."
Among the things Saunders will be on guard for is the spike of emotion he felt at the beginning of this spring at being back on the field again. The excitement of the moment sped the game up for him and he didn’t feel like himself. It took some time to relax.
The thought of strapping on the gear before opening day elicits that same sense of anticipation, and that’s counterproductive to his swing.
"My trigger is a little bit of a hitch, a bat waggle or bat tip, and the key for me is making sure I do that early so my hands are in the slot to fire when my foot gets down," he explained. "When I start early, I feel like I see the ball better, see off-speed pitches better, I don’t feel rushed. When I feel rushed, it turns a 90 mph fastball into a 95 and that kind of stuff. So for me, it’s all about slowing the game down."
Gibbons’ current plan is to bat Saunders in the lower third of the lineup to keep his run of right-handed mashers in the middle of the order undisturbed.
That’s a dominant offence’s mild vulnerability, especially against elite right-handed pitchers, and the left-handed Saunders could potentially alleviate that if he’s on.
"All he’s going to do is make our lineup stronger," said Gibbons. "[The run of righties] makes it easier on the other team setting up their bullpen. It doesn’t mean they’re going to have much success against certain guys, but opposing teams come in and they can have right-handed relievers ready for this group, so it makes it easier on the other side. But it doesn’t guarantee results."
No, it doesn’t, and that applies all around. What looks good now may not look good in two weeks, and vice-versa, which is why, as the cliché goes, they play the games.
Saunders has set himself up well for the chance to do it right.
"I feel like I passed the biggest test for me before I got here," he said. "For me, this is typically how spring goes, not numbers-wise or anything to do with that, as far as getting my at-bats and making sure I’m getting ready for opening day. I’m feeling comfortable in the box, with each at-bat I’m getting more and more comfortable. … I got back into my routine."