* Michael Saunders (Victoria, BC) was MVP of the Phoenix pool of the WBC and he hasn't stopped despite missing roughly three weeks after crashing into a fence. He had six steals and four homers in his first 22 games which has scouts predicting he has a 30-30 season in his future. ... 2013 Top Canadians eligible for draft 2013 Canadians in the Minors 2013 Canadians in College Letters of Intent 2012-13 Canadians at Canadian schools
By Bob Elliott
NEW YORK _ The window to become a major-leaguer does not stay open long.
Three or four years. Five tops, produce or move on (see Travis Snider).
Playing parts of three seasons for the Seattle Mariners, Michael Saunders hit .221, .211 and .149 ,,, a .196 career average.
“Not real good,” as scouts and executives have said for decades seated around a conference table at organizational meetings.
Saunders received one phone call, which led to another and now Mariners fans are seeing a player who could be the best athletic Canadian ball player since Larry Walker.
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The first call came from Walt Burrows, of Brentwood Bay, B.C., Canadian director of scouting for MLB Scouting Bureau in February of 2012, before spring training.
“Walt asked if it was OK to give my home number to Joey Votto,” Saunders said Thursday before the Mariners faced the New York Yankees. “I said by all means, who wouldn’t want to talk hitting with the game’s best hitter?”
Saunders, 26, has known Burrows since “probably grade 10” from attending Baseball Canada camps at Lambrick Park in Victoria, B.C.
Burrows is a pal of Bob Smyth, Votto’s former coach, who now lives in Ladysmith, B.C.
Votto and Saunders spoke for an hour. The No. 1 thing Saunders took out of the conversation?
“I was in the midst of saying ‘why can a guy who doesn’t have my size, hit more home runs than me? What is he doing that I’m not doing’” Saunders recalled. “Joey stopped me in my tracks and said God made you who you are, be the best Michael Saunders you can be.”
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The outfielder went outside the box and outside the organization for personal hitting lessons from Mike Bard, a Denver-based hitting instructor in 2012. Now, a Castle Rock, Col. resident, Saunders had the support of the Mariners, unlike Colby Rasmus who went outside the St. Louis Cardinals family for help and was dealt out of Missouri and out of the country.
Bard is the brother of former Mariners back-up catcher Josh Bard, a friend of Saunders from their days in the minors.
“Mike Bard taught me to shorten up my swing, allow the ball to travel,” said Saunders. “He built up my confidence.
“It was a good decision to take control of my own career.”
We recall Atlanta Braves Jeff Francouer and Brian McCann going outside the Braves organization for hitting help.
“Seattle management was very supportive, they wanted me to get better,” he said.
Last year Saunders hit .247 with 19 homers, drove in 57 and had an OPS of .738 under hitting coach Chris Chambliss. It was a year that the “foundation was laid for this season.”
This season former Los Angeles Dodger Dave Hansen is the new hitting coach with the M’s. Hansen has spoken to Bard. He knows where Saunders’ elbow should be, he knows if he is rushing, he knows everything that Bard knows about Saunders. “He’s my eyes,” says Saunders, who also gets help from (first base coach Mike Brumley.
Saunders didn’t take the two-week, 10-hour course. Bard is on a yearly retainer and watches all of Saunders at-bats.
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This spring, Saunders was named to the METLIFE All-World Baseball Classic team earning MVP honours of the Phoenix pool, hitting .727 with seven RBIs.
“I thanked Joey in person for how his help,” said Saunders of the former National League MVP.
In 2010 Votto, who Saunders says “has a great ability to only swing at strikes” won the NL MVP in 2010.
“I remember that he was very grateful for my advice,” said Votto from Miami. “I was humbled by that. I certainly hope he does well.”
Votto doubled in a 5-3 win over the Marlins in 10 innings.
“That was my first WBC (he was injured in 2009), it won’t be my last. It’s an honour and privilege to play for your country. I’ve never made post-season play, but that had to be playoff-like atmosphere.
“We showed Canada is more than a hockey nation, Canada is on the baseball map, to come so close to beating Team USA with a team of all-stars and some former award winners.”
Canada lost to Italy, beat Mexico in one of the scariest bench-clearing brawls we’ve ever seen and were five outs away from beating Team USA.
Manager Joe Torre had the likes of Heath Bell, R.A. Dickey, Derek Holland, Craig Kimbrel, Ryan Vogelsong, Joe Mauer, Eric Hosmer, Jimmy Rollins, David Wright, Ben Zobrist, Ryan Braun, Giancarlo Stanton, Shane Victorino and Adam Jones.
Jones hit a two-run single off Jimmy Henderson to give Team USA the lead.
“We even made Don Cherry's Coach’s Corner on Hockey Night in Canada,” Saunders said. “But seriously I was afraid for my family during the brawl. Canadians were outnumbered in the stands. My father was there with a buddy and he was wearing Canadian colours. Fans from Mexico threatened my father’s friend.”
After the final out the clubhouse was sombre.
A few moments later guys were giving each other hugs and best wishes on the upcoming season, then sharing a beer before the bus ride to the hotel.
When he returned to Mariners’ training camp in Peoria, Az. there was lefty Oliver Perez of Mexico. He said teammates didn’t tease much about the Team USA-Canada game, but there was plenty of talk about the Mexico-Canada game.
Saunders was excited to learn that the father of Blue Jays right-hander Josh Johnson (“we could use him”) was born in Calgary and that the father of Atlanta Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman (“I know we have Joey and Justin, but couldn’t Freddie play third? Oh no we have Brett Lawrie, could Freddie play the outfield?”) was born in Windsor.
Therefore both are WBC eligible in three more years.
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The 2013 Saunders model is even better.
“Canada is known left-handed power hitters who run like they just got off the ice,” said one scout. “Saunders plays centre with a grace and speed I have not seen since Walker. The kid has a ways to go, but he’s come a long way. He could be a 30-30 guy some day.”
Despite missing 19 games (shoulder) the left-handed hitting Saunders is 6-for-6 stealing and has four homers heading into his 23 game, less than one month of the schedule. It’s not much of a stretch to multiply by six and imagine a 30-30 season.
Walker had one 30-30 season (49 homers, 33 steals) with the 1997 Colorado Rockies. Saunders is batting .278, with 12 RBIs and an .865 OPS.
“He’s as good as they come,” said Seattle’s Raul Ibanez, an 18-year vet, “he’s destined for greatness. He steals, drives the ball the other way for power, can pull the ball, is great in centre and throws well.”
He’s shown plate discipline walking seven times in the previous 10 games. He had four walks before being injured crashing into the fence making a catch against the Houston Astros.
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Saunders is Canadiana as maple syrup ... from one coast ... his the family’s Minnehaha commercial hunting and fishing lodge in Gander, Nfld., now run by uncle Jeff, to central Canada ... his late mom Wendy was from Mississauga and ... the other coast ... his father, Dr. Derek Saunders was born in Gander and moved to Victoria in 1981.
So using the WBC-rules which makes players eligible depending upon their parents place of birth, Saunders would be able to play for Newfoundland if their ever was a WBC-style Canada cup with players from all 10 provinces.
“I’d be eligible, but I think I’d have a tough time getting away from Team BC, Justin Morneau might have something to say about that,” said Saunders.
Saunders played for coach Mike Chewpoy’s Victoria Mariners, attended Tallahassee College and was an 11th-round pick by Seattle scout Wayne Norton in 2004.
Rich Harden and Vince Perkins are Victoria Mariners grads.
Plus Saunders would earn a berth on the all-time, all-Canadian good guy team with Jeff Francis, Phillippe Aumont, John Axford, Scott Diamond, Paul Quantrill, Morneau and Walker.
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Bard gets credit for shortening Saunders swing.
Votto should get credit for taking the time to spread his knowledge and influence.
The free-thinking Mariners do too for allowing someone from outside the organization to tinker with a prized prospect.
Who should get the most credit?
“No one has all the answers, a year ago he came back with an intensity and some new ideas,” said general manager Jack Zduriencik. “He’s grown as a person and has a wonderful wife.
“You have to give it to the kid, he’s gone out and done it. I lay the credit in his lap.”