18 November 2014

Orioles Trade Target: Michael Saunders

Michael Saunders (photo via Keith Allison)
Now that the Orioles have decided to officially not take my advice by declining the $17.5 million team option on Nick Markakis, they should probably take our own Matt Perez’s advice and not bring him back for the 2015 season at all.  Yesterday, while discussing whether Markakis is even an everyday player at this point in his career, Matt Kremnitzer touched on the rumors that the Orioles free agent right fielder is looking at contract offers going for 4 years, at anywhere from $40-48 million.  If that’s the case, the team should probably let Markakis walk, and either replace him or go into the 2015 season with an outfield of Adam Jones, Steve Pearce, Alejandro De Aza, and David Lough.

Whether or not the Orioles will have suitable outfield depth without Nelson Cruz and Markakis is debatable, but personally, I’m a little uncomfortable with the non-Cruz, non-Markakis outfield situation, and would lean towards acquiring a replacement for one of them.  As I mentioned in my previous post on Markakis, the free agent market for outfielders this offseason isn’t inspiring, so the best option is likely through a trade.  And one of the best values on the outfield trade market appears to be Seattle outfielder Michael Saunders.

If you take a look at Michael Saunders’ career numbers, they are a little underwhelming.  In 553 career games (almost 3.5 seasons worth of plate appearances), Saunders has produced a triple slash line of .231/.301/.384, which equates to a 92 wRC+.  In other words, he’s been 8% worse than your average major league hitter since he debuted in 2009.  Combined with above average baserunning and below average defense, and he’s been worth 5.0 wins above replacement according to Fangraphs.  However, if you take a look at his seasons individually, you start to see that he may be much more valuable than his career line shows.

Michael Saunders career numbers by year
As you can see from the table, Saunders has been an average or above average hitter in each season since 2012, and he’s produced nearly all of his positive career fWAR during those 3 seasons.  However, if you look a little closer at the 2012 and 2013 seasons, you can see that his overall value has been held back by his defense, when he played the majority of his games in centerfield.  Needless to say, advanced defensive metrics don’t approve of Saunders’ play in centerfield, as he’s accumulated -9.8 UZR (-6.0 UZR/150) and has been worth -25 defensive runs saved in 2,161 innings.  Obviously, that’s not good.  But the good news is that the Orioles wouldn’t need Saunders to roam centerfield since that position is currently occupied by one of the best in the game.  They won’t even need him as a backup centerfielder either, as long as David Lough is on the roster.  If the Orioles were to trade for Saunders, he would be in one of the corners (most likely right field), where he grades out as a much better defender.

Michael Saunders career defensive stats in LF and RF
Saunders had his best year offensively by far in 2014, getting on base, and hitting for much more power in previous years, finishing the season with a 126 wRC+.  He also spent the majority of his time in right field, which helped put him on the overall positive side of defensive statistics for the first time since 2010 (a year mostly spent in CF that now looks like an outlier).  It may be a little too optimistic (more on that in a second), but if you prorate Saunders’ 2014 season out to a full 600 PA’s, he would have produced just over 4.3 fWAR, which is great, especially for someone who made just $2.3 million in 2014, his first year of arbitration. That’s another reason to trade for Saunders: he has two more years of team control before becoming a free agent.  And since he hasn’t put up big numbers in his career to date, his final two years in arbitration shouldn’t break the bank.  In fact, Tim Dierkes is projecting Saunders to receive $2.9 million in 2015, only a modest raise from last year’s salary.

The knock on Saunders is that he hasn’t been able to stay on the field, and his injury table at Baseball Prospectus is a little bit intimidating, as it initially appears to be longer than one would like.  However, he was listed as day to day for the majority of those injuries, and has only been on the disabled list 3 times during his career, missing a total of 82 games, most of which was the result of a left oblique strain.  Unfortunately, 2 of those DL stints occurred in 2014, while the other was in 2013, and it’s the primary reason he didn’t get more plate appearances last year.

The other concern with a Saunders acquisition would be the potential (or more rather likely) platoon issues.  While Saunders hit well against southpaws last year (100 wRC+), he’s typically been a much weaker hitter when facing left-handed pitching.  Over the course of his career, his 78 wRC+ against left-handers pales in comparison to his 99 wRC+ against right-handers.  It’s possible that his ability to hit left-handed pitching improved last year, but I wouldn’t necessarily bet on it, since he only faced left-handers in 61 PA’s, and despite a 30% line drive rate against them, his BABIP of .372 seems unsustainable.  If his platoon issues persist, the addition of Saunders would appear to be redundant, as he would be the 3rd “good defense, can’t hit left-handed pitching” outfielder on the roster.  However, adding Saunders would allow the Orioles to shop and/or non-tender Alejandro De Aza, which would likely save them approximately $3 million (MLB Trade Rumors projects De Aza’s 2015 salary at $5.9 million), while also adding a player with an extra year of team control.

The acquisition of Michael Saunders allows the Orioles to replace the production they would have received by keeping Nick Markakis, at a lower cost and without a 4-year commitment.  In fact, there’s a good argument to be made that Saunders could be at least twice as productive as Markakis in 2015 and beyond.  Saunders shouldn’t cost too much in terms of a return either, since the Mariners basically announced to the league earlier this month that they were looking to deal him (with some comments from Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik questioning Saunders’ conditioning sprinkled in for good measure).  The Mariners are looking to win now and could use another starter, so maybe offering Miguel Gonzalez would get the job done.  Although, depending on how sour the relationship between Saunders and the Mariners has gotten, it may not even take that much.


Statistics Don't Lie said...

Generally, one would expect a player leaving Seattle for Baltimore to receive an offensive boost due to ballpark factors - I'm too lazy to check his splits.

If you are one to believe that Pearce is due for some regression in 2015, then, at a minimum, Pearce/Saunders look like a good tag team for RF.

Philip said...

I wasn't enthusiastic about Saunders before this article, so thank young orntype indepth analysis.
The other writer touched on Park differences, which I don't think you mentioned. Surely OPAC would offer a big boost?
The issue of health is significant, though.
Markakis is an ironman, Saunders is much more fragile. Can we handle an RF player who's going to be out 60 games a season?
And finally, wouldn't Miguel Gonzalez be an awfully high price?
Chen or Norris each have only one more year left. I like them both very much, but wouldn't one of them be better as trade fodder?

Anonymous said...

Camden Yards is largely pitcher friendly this past season as home runs across the league decrease.

Nate Delong said...

OPACY could provide a boost to Saunders' raw numbers, but wRC+ is league and park adjusted. Also, I would probably prefer to trade Bud Norris rather than Gonzalez, but I don't think that the Mariners would want 1 year of Norris for $8.7 million in exchange for 2 years of Saunders. Plus, Gonzalez doesn't have as much value as he did now taht he's arb eligible (though he's still valuable), and if you think he is just a smoke and mirrors act, this could be an opportunity to sell high on him. Plus, Safeco would be a good fit for a pitcher like Gonzalez (flyball guy without overwhelming stuff)

Philip said...

Because Norris and Chen are both leaving after next year anyway, wouldn't trading Gonzalez create a major hole in the rotation?
Gausman and Bundy are still huge question marks, and unfortunately, Jimenez is not a question mark at all.
Add to that Tillman's questionable performance, and it is an additional reason to keep Gonzalez.
You made a good case for getting Saunders(and at the Mariners blog, they seem eager to move him) but if The cost is a major revamp of the 2016 rotation, with one flop, two big questions, and two empty spots(and Harvey can't yet step into one of them) the price may be too high.

TheLeadSled said...

Doesn't fill me with any excitement at all, just another average OF at best that a club hopes he has a breakout year. This is not the kind of player the O's need to be trading for if they want any attempt at repeating last years awesome season, sorry Saunders is just a downgrade at best!

Nate Delong said...

TheLeadSled - Even if Saunders has a similar season as 2012 (108 wRC+ in 553 PA's in CF, where he lost value), he'll produce similar value to 2014 Markakis, for as much as $9 million less in 2015 AND without a 4 year commitment.

Saunders doesn't NEED to have an offensive breakout to be valuable to the Orioles. As it stands, Steamer projects Saunders to be worth more than a full win higher than Markakis in 2015. And judging by Steamer's negative defensive projection for Saunders in 2015, it's likely assuming he'll play the majority of games in CF, which wouldn't be the case if he palyed in Baltimore.

TheLeadSled said...

True very true, I know that DD is a master of plucking guys up that turns out to be fantastic, but 4 me I'd rather see them focus on Nick and Nelson. If they are a no go then explore the market for FA and trade possibilities. I realize we are just fans and want all the great players out there in black n orange, but I simply want to see them making playoff runs hopefully with a WS banner flying high above OPACY!