Saunders shaping up to be next big thing for the Ms

Last year, Michael Saunders hit the ball like he was in a little league, but through intensive training and batting practice, M's brass could soon have reason to brag about the outfielder.

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Michael Saunders

Last year, Michael Saunders hit the ball like he was in a little league, but through intensive training and batting practice, M's brass could soon have reason to brag about the outfielder.

If they can’t be good enough, maybe the 2012 Seattle Mariners will become lucky enough to hold their own in what promises to be a tougher four-team division than several of the five larger major-league brackets.

In retrospect, perhaps some of us are starting to appreciate the club’s apparent luck factor after recalling a morning in late January. For the occasion of the annual pre-spring-training media event, M’s brass brought three projected 2012 roster members to the stage. Two of the three scarcely were surprises. Jesus Montero, after all, if not yet “catcher of the future” for the franchise, at least looks like a '12 lock for the lineup’s most frequent designated hitter.

The second player also was an obvious choice as a media-day face of the franchise. Mike Carp, after a smashing 2011 effort, promises to become the steady left-handed power hitter the team has needed for several seasons.

Then there was the third guest: Michael Saunders. Some of us, upon noting Saunders’ inclusion, asked no one in particular: “Hunh?”

This was the outfielder who, during 2011, played defense like a big-league star and played offense like a little-league star. In 58 games last season he hit .149, lowering his three-year big-league average to .196. Moreover, the way he strained at the plate with his selection of pitch (he tended to take strikes and swing at balls), Saunders at times actually looked more like a .049 hitter.

What, then, was he doing on the dais?

Here again, call it lucky if you will. Based on Saunders’ early spring-training performance, M’s execs now seem prescient in asking the lanky outfielder to discuss the advantages of his intensive offseason batting instruction. The 25-year-old Victoria, B.C., native is connecting with pitches as well as anybody in camp. At about the midpoint of preseason (through March 12) he and Montero both were 7 for 18 (.389) while Carp was 7 for 19 (.368).

But Saunders, for another reason, is becoming the big story of training camp. While he may have seemed expendable a few weeks ago, his presence has become somewhat critical given that Franklin Gutierrez is on the mend yet again.

That takes us back to the January press event. While Gutierrez wasn’t present, he may as well have been for all the mention he received. Rick Griffin, the M’s trainer, was effusive in his praise of the way the center fielder had not only recovered from last year’s afflictions and injuries; Gutie also had put on needed pounds of muscle and was projected to become the excellent all-around player predicted by his initial season with the team in 2009.

Then, on Feb. 28, the snake-bit center fielder suffered a tear of his right pectoral muscle. He’ll be sidelined beyond the M’s March 28 and 29 season-opening meetings against Oakland in Tokyo. It may be just as well. Given his tendency toward setbacks, Gutierrez might during the flight over the Pacific have picked up an in-flight magazine and sustained a debilitating paper cut to his throwing hand.

Meanwhile, Saunders is at the very least ready to play center field with the range and throwing accuracy of Gutierrez. Granted: 7 for 18 at the plate obviously shouldn’t have anybody extrapolating to an American League batting crown for Saunders. Yet, if his big-league hitting really has improved (hard to imagine how it could get worse), M’s execs could wind up having every reason to say whenever the 2012 praising of Saunders, Carp, or Montero is heard:

“Remember that press event in January? We told you so.”


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