Mariners hope Saunders can stay healthy, play every day

Organization believes oft-injured outfielder has talent to be consistent starter

Mariners hope Saunders can stay healthy, play every day

SEATTLE -- After another season interrupted by various health issues, Michael Saunders isn't a lock to be the Mariners starting right fielder next year. Manager Lloyd McClendon and general manager Jack Zduriencik indicated as much last week at the team's season-ending press conference.

Between stints on the disabled list, Saunders primarily split playing time in 2014 with veteran Endy Chavez, rookie Stefen Romero and non-waiver Trade Deadline acquisition Chris Denorfia. But McClendon and most Mariners fans still believe Saunders can be a productive everyday player.

Much of it depends on if he can avoid getting injured again, and that might ultimately be up to him, according to Zduriencik.

"Some are freak injuries. Some are things that just happen," Zduriencik said. "But some of these things need to be handled from a maintenance standpoint where he puts himself in a position to be able to compete through the course of a season."

Saunders' latest campaign was especially frustrating because he seemed on the verge of reaching his offensive potential, hitting .273 with eight home runs, 34 RBIs and a .791 OPS. But he only had 231 at-bats in 78 games because of a hyperextended left knee in May, a right shoulder injury in June and a strained left oblique in July. The latter two required stints on the 15-day disabled list.

While making his way back from the strained oblique, Saunders contracted a viral infection from his newborn daughter. He lost 12 pounds and had to continue rehabbing, spending time at the club's Spring Training facility in Arizona before eventually returning to the lineup in early September after missing close to two months of the Major League season.

"It's unfortunate. He was playing good for us, got hurt, came back, got sick," Zduriencik said. "He came back again and did some nice things, but I think what Michael has to do and has to answer to himself is, 'How do I prepare myself to play as many games through the course of 162 that I can possibly play without being set back by injuries?'"

When he played, Saunders, 27, competed well, and as Zduriencik pointed out, he finished on a high note, hitting two home runs and driving in six in his final 13 games. That included a 2-for-3, two-RBI performance in a 4-1 win over the Angels on the final day of the regular season.

"[It's] motivation to work hard this offseason and come back even better next year," Saunders said afterward.

McClendon, though, is the one who ultimately signs the lineup card. He wants Saunders, the club's 11th-round pick in 2004 First-Year Player Draft, to get stronger this offseason so he has a better chance to stay healthy.

"I'd love for him to be out there," McClendon said. "He's got to get in the weight room."

If he can stay on the field, the 6-foot-4, 225-pound native of Victoria, British Columbia, has the physical tools -- a strong arm, good speed and ability hit for power -- to be the team's starting right fielder. During his breakout season in 2012, he played 139 games, hit 19 home runs and stole 21 bases, all career highs.

Can he replicate or improve on that production?

"I think his numbers tell you that he is [a starting right fielder]. But the problem is he's not out there every day," McClendon said. "There's no better joy for a manager than to be able to write a name into the lineup every day. But when a guy is on the DL, it's tough. It throws everything out of whack."

This offseason marks Saunders' second year of arbitration eligibility, which means he should see a significant salary increase from the $2.3 million he earned in 2014. He isn't a free agent until 2017, which means the Mariners have the brunt of the bargaining power.

The front office plans to increase this year's nearly $107 million payroll. There is speculation the Mariners might try to sign a traditional slugging right fielder. Baltimore's Nelson Cruz, who led the Major Leagues with 40 home runs this season, will be a free agent. He almost signed with Seattle last year before negotiations between his camp and Zduriencik reportedly stalled.

The Mariners could also choose to non-tender Saunders a contract and avoid entering arbitration. In that scenario, he enters free agency and can sign with any team, including Seattle.

But as the roster's currently constructed, he still has a fair chance to land the starting right field job next season.

Denorfia is a free agent and hit just .195 in 32 games after coming over from the Padres at the Trade Deadline. Chavez batted .276 and played solid defense in 80 games after being recalled from Triple-A Tacoma, but he will be 37 next year and is also a free agent.

Romero, the organization's 2012 Minor League Player of The Year, was given a chance to lock down a spot in right field after an impressive Spring Training, but he posted a -1.5 WAR (Wins Above Replacement) and a .192 batting average in 72 games as a rookie.

Saunders, meanwhile, finished the year with a career-high 2.4 WAR.

Is he part of the club's future?

"This has been a common question asked throughout the year," Saunders said. "My job is not to write the lineup, my job is to play when I'm in there, and I did to the best of my ability.

"I want to be an everyday guy."

Adam Lewis is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.