Back on August 16, I posted a forecast of which free agents could receive qualifying offers from their teams this offseason. Michael Saunders was listed as one of my “easy calls” to receive the one-year, $16.7MM contract, with one important caveat. Saunders, at that point, had been in a month-long slump, so I noted that the Blue Jays could re-consider issuing Saunders a QO if his slump continued, given his lack of track record as an upper-tier hitter.
Well, fast-forward six weeks and Saunders’ bat has yet to wake up. In 27 games between August 16 and September 23, Saunders is hitting just .207/.286/.427 with four homers over 92 plate appearances. In the second half altogether, Saunders has contributed a .179/.284/.375 slash line over 195 PA, though eight of his 24 homers on the season have come since the All-Star break.
So while Saunders has retained some of his pop (he has a respectable .196 isolated slugging mark in the second half) since the Midsummer Classic, the rest of his batting numbers have fallen off the table. This has made Saunders a sub-replacement level player for the Jays, since if Saunders isn’t hitting, he can’t contribute much on the basepaths or as a corner outfielder. An above-average baserunner early in his career according to Fangraphs’ BsR metric, Saunders has unsurprisingly been subpar in that category since tearing his meniscus during a freak Spring Training accident in 2015 and subsequently missing much of that season due to knee problems. It’s fair to guess that the knee injury has also contributed to Saunders’ poor defense, as his minus-9 Defensive Runs Scored and -12.1 UZR/150 this season in the outfield is well below his pre-meniscus tear career standard as a decent left fielder and a very good right fielder.
As it pertains to Saunders’ free agent stock, teams will certainly think hard about offering a big multi-year deal to a player who may already be turning into a bat-only type as he enters his age-30 season, especially when his bat may not be that potent. If Saunders and his representatives at Meister Sports Management feel that these question marks and the QO-attached draft pick compensation hanging over his free agency could limit his market, he could accept the Jays’ qualifying offer and aim for 2017 as that true breakout year where he is both healthy and consistently productive.
If the Blue Jays think there’s a chance Saunders accepts a QO, would they be comfortable offering it? The Jays may be wary committing $16.7MM to a player with Saunders’ limitations. There’s also the fact that Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista are also free agents this winter, and both will certainly be issued qualifying offers. Encarnacion will definitely reject his, while there’s a chance Bautista could accept given his disappointing and injury-plagued season. If both signed elsewhere, the Jays would probably welcome Saunders accepting a QO just so they could retain one important bat for the lineup. Encarnacion’s departure would also free up the designated hitter spot for Saunders and other veterans in the Blue Jays lineup. If fatigue has been a factor in Saunders’ second-half slide, regular DH at-bats would help keep him fresher and perhaps more productive over all 162 games.
This all being said, let’s not forget just how tremendous Saunders was in the first half of 2016. Only 13 players in baseball topped Saunders’ first-half wRC+ of 146, and the outfielder hit an impressive .298/.372/.551 with 16 homers over 344 PA. Saunders had long been rumored to have middle-of-the-order bat potential, and it was all clicking for him in the first 3.5 months of the season.
Given that teams are increasingly preferring to be flexible with their DH spot rather than have one designated hitter, a team with holes at both DH and corner outfield would certainly consider Saunders to rotate between both positions. As mentioned earlier, 2017 will be Saunders’ age-30 season, which gives him an age advantage over some of the other notable corner outfield/DH types on the market this offseason. Teams may be more willing to surrender a draft pick for a player who could still be coming into his prime, so it’s quite possible that Saunders will find a nice contract elsewhere and the Jays can recoup a draft pick via the qualifying offer.
Far from being an “easy call” anymore, Saunders now stands as one of the most intriguing QO cases of any free agent this winter, particularly given how his situation could influence how the Blue Jays approach re-signing Encarnacion and/or Bautista. How do MLBTR readers feel? (link for app users):