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Michael Saunders Is Not The Answer...Yet

Michael SaundersIt is no secret that the Mariners offense is bad. The lineup really only features three guys who are above average hitters - Ichiro, Russell Branyan, and surprisingly Franklin Gutierrez. It also features a couple league average guys, Ken Griffey Jr. and Jose Lopez, though the average players are completely different types of hitters. That leaves four spots in the lineup to try to upgrade the offense.

The internal option that pops up from time to time is Michael Saunders. He is an outfielder, so he fills one of those holes in the lineup. He also is the Mariners top position prospect. On top of all that, Saunders is currently in AAA Tacoma and hitting quite well, with a batting average hovering around .300, and an OPS around .900.

As the Mariners stay in contention, the trade deadline approaches, and the offense continues to struggle, debate over promoting Michael Saunders is likely to heat up. Instead of waiting for the debate to grow, I figured I would make a pre-emptive strike. That way, you, the faithful readers of the Mariners Musings, will be able to impress all your friends with your insight when they start talking about Saunders.

Let's get to know Michael Saunders a little bit better. Hailing from beautiful Victoria, BC, Saunders was drafted by the Mariners in the 11th round in 2004. His first full season of pro ball was spent in Wisconsin in 2006, where he batted only .240 with 4 home runs. Michael still got promoted to High Desert to start 2007 though, and he began to flourish, batting almost .300 with 14 home runs before a call-up to AA at the end of the year. He started 2008 in AA, but then moved up to AAA near the end of that season. Now, Saunders is still in AAA, and near the point of the year where he has been promoted that past couple seasons.

In particular, there is a ton to like about what Saunders is doing this year at the plate. His walk rate is down a little from where it has been throughout his minor league career, but his strikeout rate is literally half of what it was in 2007. Not surprisingly, that has helped his batting average. Furthermore, Michael is not sacrificing power to cut down on the strikeouts. In fact, he is on pace to set a career-high in slugging percentage. At 22 years old, Saunders would be on pace to bat .300 with 25 home runs in Tacoma if he had not missed April with an injury. His 6'4" frame is likely to fill out some more too, so more power is not out of the question in the future.

Clearly, there is a ton to like about Michael Saunders. He is not far away from the majors. In fact, he is probably a better hitter than current M's left fielder Ryan Langerhans right now. Saunders already makes contact a little more often, and hits for a little more power.

However, as much as I like Michael Saunders, I would not call him up. Langerhan's defense is better (because Langerhans is a better defender than almost anyone), so Saunders would have to be a better hitter to be the better option. He will be the better hitter, but not right away. The jump from AAA to the majors is significant, especially for a guy like Saunders, yet to make his major league debut. Even the jump from AA to AAA last year threw Saunders off a little bit.

Saunders is likely to struggle for the first couple weeks at least in the majors. If he doesn't, then the league will adjust to him, and he will have to adjust to that. The point is that Saunders will likely struggle at the plate at some point. Adam Jones did too when he was called up a couple years back. Colby Rasmus struggled at the start of the year in St. Louis. Ditto for Travis Snider with the Blue Jays, and he ultimately got sent back down. Prospects face growing pains.

Michael has the talent to get through the growing pains, but the Mariners can't afford to let him work through it in the middle of a pennant race. It is not the best climate for Saunders to work through the inevitable growing pains either. I would much rather see Saunders get called up in September once the AAA season is over, and pinch hit here and there. If the Mariners get eliminated from the race, then play Saunders every day in left field for the last week or two of the regular season.

It would be the best for everyone. Saunders can get his feet wet in the majors, and hopefully get the awe of making it to the big leagues out of the way. He would also be helpful off the bench. With a little major league experience, and maybe some extra seasoning in the Arizona fall league, Saunders will be better prepared for 2010 - where I think he will be the favorite to start Opening Day in left field.

Prospects rarely are the answer in a pennant race because they have to work through growing pains in a pressure-packed situation. I doubt Saunders would be an exception to the rule. As excited as I will be if/when he gets called up, he would not help the Mariners right now. It won't stunt his development much, if at all, if he stays in Tacoma either. Michael's real future with the Mariners is in 2010 and beyond.