The Pirates have inked a minor-league deal with outfielder Michael Saunders, per a club announcement. He has been invited to participate in the MLB side of camp.
Saunders, 31, has had something of a roller-coaster career to this point. After an injury-riddled run with the Mariners, he seemed to turn a corner in 2016 with the Blue Jays. Saunders ran up a .253/.338/.478 slash through 558 plate appearances, though the bulk of the output came in the first half of the season.
The open market was not quite as kind to Saunders as many anticipated, but he still commanded a $9MM guarantee to join the Phillies in advance of the 2017 season. Things just did not work out in Philadelphia, though, as Saunders limped to a .205/.257/.360 slash before being cut loose. He ended up back with the Toronto organization but was not overly impressive at Triple-A or in a brief, late-season return to the majors.
Those ups and downs have shown up in baserunning and fielding metrics, too, perhaps reflecting the role that injuries have played. Saunders has at times graded as a high-end threat on the bases (2012-13) and corner outfield defender (2014), but received below-average marks in both areas in 2016 before bouncing back somewhat in his 73 total MLB games in the following campaign.
Pittsburgh enters Spring Training with several options for filling the outfield vacancy created by the trade of Andrew McCutchen. It could be that Saunders will battle Daniel Nava (a switch-hitter who’s much better against righties) for a single spot. Saunders carries narrow platoon splits over his career, it’s worth noting. That represents a point of distinction from Nava, who was productive when healthy last year but has never hit a lick against southpaws.
Perhaps both players could earn jobs if they are sufficiently impressive, but that seems like a tight fit. The Bucs could utilize southpaw-swinging utilityman Adam Frazier in the outfield, after all. And the team will need to ensure that it has the other pieces needed for a platoon, with right-handed hitters Bryce Brentz and Sean Rodriguez providing options.
If he’s not able to crack the Opening Day roster, Saunders will presumably spend some time digging in against Triple-A pitching in hopes of getting back to form. (Whether and when he can opt out of his deal is not yet known.) Given the amount of uncertainty at the major-league level for the Pirates, Saunders should at a minimum represent a worthwhile depth option to have on hand.