Raising Questions

What the heck happened with Michael Saunders?

Photo by Keith Allison

Let’s start at the beginning. It was this past offseason when the Phillies decided that they needed to add a bat to the lineup. They were caught between a rock and a hard place because they didn’t want to take on any long-term payroll in the form of a multi-year contract and they also desperately needed a bat with at least a little bit of power, preferably left handed. They needed protection for Maikel Franco, someone who would force pitchers to throw him fastball strikes because they didn’t want to walk him and have the next guy blast a two-run shot. They needed someone to help lead this group of young players from “maybe he could be something” to “that guy can play.”

They thought Michael Saunders would be that guy. He wasn’t. He wasn’t even close to that guy. Pitchers feared Saunders like grown men fear soda cans; sure, they could erupt but the odds were they wouldn’t and instead they would just be the refreshing relief they needed.

Saunders was a career .235 hitter before joining the Phils. That’s what they were signing. And this wasn’t in some small sample size either. That .235 batting average represents eight seasons, 702 games and over 2500 plate appearances. He had 75 career home runs at that point for an average of one home run per 33.5 plate appearances.

In addition to not hitting for either average or power he showed no aptitude for getting on base, exemplified by a career on-base-percentage of .309.

And just to round out his profile, he wasn’t a defensive maven either. He put up negative replacement numbers for his defense over those eight seasons culminating in a -3.4 defensive bWAR.

Perhaps General Manager Matt Klentak was swayed by recency bias, where the most recent occurrence of something is what you expect going forward. Saunders had indeed just come off his most successful season as a major leaguer while playing with the Blue Jays in 2016. He was an all-star who hit .253/.338/.378 in 2016, but a majority of that was achieved through an absolutely stellar first half. Maybe that’s what Klentak thought he was buying.

But alas, the true Saunders emerged and the $9 million dollars that the Phillies had agreed to pay him became a complete waste. That $9 million, by the way, was an over 200 percent raise for Saunders from his previous year, when he earned $2.9 million.

So when asked “what happened” with regards to the Saunders situation in Philadelphia, the only thing you can really say is “nothing. He is who he is, who he’s pretty much always been. And that’s what we got.”

For their part, the Phillies may have been better served by just committing the dollars and the time to a player like Jose Bautista or Dexter Fowler. Those two players have proven to be some of the best in baseball in an area the Phillies are desperately trying to improve in: plate discipline. While neither is having a stellar year on their own, the Phillies sure could use their leadership. It would have been a slight departure from their plan, but certainly the plan wasn’t to waste $9 million on two months of a player.

As it is Saunders is now gone (back in Toronto’s system, by the way). The Phillies will move forward and have hinted at the possibility of adding a long-term piece at the deadline with the caveat that it’s the “right piece.” That piece may help Franco and Co. regain some of that potential and get this team back on track. Let’s just hope they use better judgement than they did when bringing in Saunders.



  1. David Weaver

    July 6, 2017 at 10:06 am

    The soda can comparison is a great line! I can read the same boring rehash of facts and stats on 10 different sites. I prefer and article like this one that reads like someone with training wrote it and makes me laugh as well as think. Nice job.

    • Evan Gusz

      July 7, 2017 at 3:07 pm

      Hey, thanks a lot. It means a lot to me – what you wrote.

  2. Bizzle Wizzle

    July 6, 2017 at 11:19 am

    “That $9 million, by the way, was an over 200 percent raise for Saunders from his previous year, when he earned $2.9 million.”

    Over 300% actually.

    • Don Gardner

      July 9, 2017 at 12:41 am

      200%. He was earning almost 3 million, and his salary increased by an additional amount of twice what he was making (i.e. a 200% raise.)

  3. Paul

    July 6, 2017 at 12:38 pm

    The party over .closed the door. Turn off light Phil’s suck

  4. Dan Kelly

    July 7, 2017 at 11:19 am

    perhaps nobody was willing to sign a contract with a team with only potential players. It’s what happens when ownership is content with waiting years before they are willing to put some talent on the field. example Atlanta, they aren’t going to the world series this year, but they give their fans something to watch while they build.

    • Evan Gusz

      July 7, 2017 at 3:06 pm

      I think they had a better shot last offseason of acquiring a decent veteran player then they will this offseason. And that’s regardless of the money they offer. Some Phillies fans seem to think that Machado or Harper will just come here because of what we pay them but these guys want to compete and going to a team that’s coming off a historically bad season and has been the worst team in baseball for two of the past three seasons just will not be appealing to them or any frontline asset.

      Part of rebuilding is the actual “building” and so far we haven’t really seen ANY of that.

      • Mitchell Nathanson

        July 9, 2017 at 9:56 am

        The vast majority of free agents sign with the highest bidder, no matter how awful the team is with the highest bid. This is something that the MLBPA puts a lot of emphasis on — making sure that every player gets top dollar. Of course, a player is free to sign with who he wants and some players have bucked the system and signed for less than top dollar but the MLBPA puts a lot of pressure on players not to do that. So you don’t see it happening very often. With regard to, say, Bryce Harper, he’ll be pressured by not only the MLBPA but his own agent (Scott Boras) to sign with the highest bidder. Boras has a personal stake in seeing that that happens — Harper’s salary will most likely mark the new benchmark against which all of the other players will be measured. Once the ceiling is raised everybody else’s salary goes up also once they hit the market (which inures to Boras’s benefit once he gets around to his other clients). That’s how it works. All of this is to say that if the Phils are determined to get Harper and/or Machado after next season, odds are they’ll get them. They’d have to outbid the Yankees, Dodgers and Red Sox to do it but it won’t matter that they’re awful today. That will play almost no role in the process.

  5. Ken

    July 7, 2017 at 12:27 pm

    Just yet another indication that Klentak is not competent to run a baseball team. He was snookered by half a season and was unable to extrapolate the rest of Saunders’ career. Guess we should be glad he didn’t sign Dominic Brown.

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  7. jim

    July 9, 2017 at 7:37 am

    A bad idea to begin with. They have loads of minor league talent for outfielders, it’s better to find out at this point whether they’re going to be capable of playing in the majors. I have not been impressed with Klentak in the least! And that goes for Andy MacPhail who hired Klentak. Come on Mr. Middleton WAKE UP. Another perfect example of Klentak not doing what should be done, NEVER should he have given Mackanin an extension. He hadn’t done anything to deserve it. They will NEVER win with Mackanin in charge, he’s got a loser mentality (i.e. in spring says .500 would be a good year, you don’t shoot for the stars at .500

  8. Wbramh

    July 10, 2017 at 12:08 pm

    Unfortunately, the team is going through the culling of the herd stage. Unfortunately, some of the Phillies once most promising prospects are looking like duds.
    It’s probably too early to write off J.P. Crawford, their one “sure” future star, but he’s looking more and more like an AA player in perpetuity. Then there’s Franco, the guy most of us thought could become at least a solid, multi-tool power-hitter at 3rd base. Instead, he’s turned into the infield version of Dom Brown – just with a more likeable personality. And who among us doesn’t wish that Chooch was still here if only to help train these young pitching hopefuls. Lots of teams have catchers who can’t hit but the non-hitters should at least know how to call a game. Which brings us to Alfaro, a guy with a rocket arm (like Dom and Maikel) but little more if anything to justify being a starter on a major league team.
    As for the pitching staff, it speaks volumes when your ace for the past two years was primarily picked up to become a trade chip half-way through his first season with the team… and they still couldn’t make a deal. Yes, there’s still hope in this young rotation and in the minors but the best of what we’ve seen on the major league level looks to be a handful of #4 quality guys in some future rotation… and maybe a #2 or #3 in Nola.
    On the positive side, I’ve never lost hope for Aaron Altherr, although his injuries have been frustrating and turned him into a “late bloomer.” Still, he has shown more potential, more tools and more pure baseball smarrts than Dom Brown ever did, even in Brown’s magical 6-week transition into “Joe Hardy” before transitioning back into Dom Brown (so much for packs with the Devil).
    As for Andy and Matt, well I’m not yet prepared to toss them out after I buy the team from a discouraged and no longer passionate J.S. Middleton, but I’d have them on a very short leash come the December baseball meetings. If I were JSM, I’d consider hiring a personal consultant with the reputation of a John Mozeliak to be my bridge to the scouting and field operations side of the game to oversee what Andy and Matt are cooking… someone who can step in and take over before the rebuild is extended for another decade… or two.

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