TORONTO – Calls from other teams haven’t diminished Michael Saunders’ interest in returning to the Toronto Blue Jays. Although clubs such as the Philadelphia Phillies have expressed interest in the free agent outfielder, he’s still hopeful of re-signing with the team he grew up rooting for.
“We’ve been talking to the Blue Jays on and off all off-season. I’ve been very vocal about my tenure in Toronto and really enjoying myself," Saunders said Saturday at Baseball Canada’s annual banquet.
"I’m keeping my options open," he added. “I’m waiting for the right deal for me and my family. I’m hoping to stay in Toronto and hopefully finding out soon."
While the MLB off-season hasn’t moved as quickly as anticipated, it has given Saunders perspective on a hot and cold 2016 season. He ranked among baseball’s most productive hitters during the first half of the season with 16 home runs, a .923 OPS and a spot on the American League All-Star team. But his production dropped off in the second half of the season, when he hit just eight home runs with a .638 OPS. In retrospect, Saunders says he wasn’t feeling as fresh during the second half of the season.
"Quite honestly I think I got tired," he said. “Not trying to look for an excuse but I was wondering (why). I know that I didn’t have a great second half, but I finished strong in the playoffs and that helped me going into the off-season. It’s all about having a short memory. Going to the playoffs we didn’t go as deep as we wanted to, but having a strong post-season helped propel me into the off-season."
Saunders still finished the year with 24 home runs and an .815 OPS before hitting .381 with a .981 OPS in eight playoff games. That said, there were times when his struggles caused him to press at the plate.
"I was trying to go four-for-four before the game even started to try and dig myself out of that whole," he recalled. “Instead I was digging it deeper."
Saunders says he now feels ‘great’ physically, partly because he’s been able to follow a relatively normal off-season workout regimen. A year ago this time, he had just recovered from the bone bruise that cost him much of the 2015 season. That meant his workouts didn’t begin until December. Now that he’s on a normal off-season training program, he expects to be strong enough to produce for the entire 2017 season.
"My knee’s fully healthy," he said. “I played an entire year on turf with no issues with my knee. That to me was a sign that going forward it wasn’t (a concern)."
And yet Saunders is one of the many free agents available with a month left before spring training begins. The outfield market remains especially crowded with Brandon Moss, Jose Bautista and Angel Pagan among the remaining established options, while the trade market includes the likes of Jay Bruce, Curtis Granderson and Charlie Blackmon.
Alongside those names there’s a group of established veteran first basemen that includes Justin Morneau, Pedro Alvarez and Adam Lind. While Morneau hopes to play following a solid showing with the Chicago White Sox, he’s well aware that he might have to be patient at a time when teams are increasingly willing to slow-play the market for sluggers.
"It feels like teams have figured out a way to drive costs down," Morneau said. "They wait as long as they can and try and get guys—I use the example of (Nelson) Cruz a few years ago—on a one-year deal. It seems like teams are trying to do that.
"You see guys who led the league in homers or guys who drove in 100, All-Stars all not being signed and it’s tough because guys are obviously worthy. (Jose) Bautista with his track record has one year where he misses some time but still puts together some really good numbers. (Chris) Carter, (Mike) Napoli. You can go down the list."
"It’s hard to figure out," Morneau continued. "Hopefully everyone ends up where they need to go and the quality of play and the quality of teams doesn’t suffer because of it. You don’t want to see someone sitting at home who could be helping a major-league team.”
With limited time remaining before spring training, it stands to reason that the free agent list will start to shrink sooner rather than later. Saunders and Morneau are certainly among those who hope so.