By Andrw Hendriks
Canadian Baseball Network
As 100's of coaches from across the county gathered at Rogers Centre for the third annual National Coaching Clinic, those in attendance for the weekend’s kick-off event were treated to a question and answer period featuring such Canadian sporting luminaries as President of Baseball Canada Ray Carter, a handful of prominent Blue Jays alumni and an unexpected visit Victoria, B.C.’s Michael Saunders.
Only a month removed from a trade that sent the former 11th-round draft pick to the Blue Jays in exchange for lefty J.A. Happ, Saunders was peppered with questions ranging from what it was like to play the game at a grass roots level, to how he felt about coming home after spending the last nine years in the Mariners system.
True to form, his answers were straightforward, well thought out and came directly from the heart. When one attendees asked about playing on the carpeted expanses of Rogers Centre and how he would make the transition given his recent history with injury, Saunders spoke candidly.
“The turf never crossed my mind” said the Blue Jays freshly minted outfielder. “I’m elated to be here”.
And Toronto was elated to have him.
“There are several GM’s who think the most underrated pickup thus far is Michael Saunders by the Blue Jays,” wrote award winning baseball scribe, Peter Gammons in a late December tweet last offseason.
Given his strong performance in 2014, who could have argued such a statement?
In his sixth campaign with the M’s, Saunders managed to post career highs in batting average (.276), on-base percentage (.341), and slugging percentage with a .450 marker. Of course, he did miss a portion of the season due to an injury in his left oblique but despite a run of bad luck, all signs indicated that a breakout season was on the horizon in 2015.
A fresh start coupled with both a return home and playing 81 games within the hitting friendly confines of Rogers Centre had Saunders enthusiastic about his opportunity with the Blue Jays, and he carried this enthusiasm straight in to spring training last winter.
Arriving at Dunedin well in advance of the Feb. 27th reporting date for Major League position players, Saunders was determined to make good on the Blue Jays deal with Seattle. Focused, reenergized and determined, he was prepared to outwork both his competition and those who doubted his ability to be the kind of offensive threat that made Toronto pursue him in the offseason.
Unfortunately baseball, like life, is an unfair practice.
Shagging harmless fly outs on a backfield at the Bobby Mattick Training Center in Dunedin well before the required reporting date for position players, Saunders stepped directly into peril, landing on an exposed sprinkler head and dashing the Blue Jays plans for their newly acquired outfielder.
This untimely misstep resulted in a moderate tear within the meniscus of Saunders left knee, an injury thought to have originally landed the 6-foot-4 veteran on the disabled list until at least the All-Star break.
Opting to remove the damaged cartilage rather than undergoing strenuous amounts of rehab and additional missed time, Saunders quickly rebounded following surgery and was back to baseball activities only a month after his initial injury.
Having dealt with a few minor setbacks, he was able to rejoin the Jays by April 25th. Nine games later, Saunders was shut down once again with a bone bruise. He wouldn’t return to the active roster for the remainder of the 2015 season.
Watching from a far, Saunders witnessed the Blue Jays transform their roster at the trade deadline en route to starting one of the most dominant runs in modern baseball history earn.
Regardless of the setback, an influx of additional talent and heightened expectations to win following the clubs first postseason appearance in 22 years, Toronto stuck with their Canadian-born outfielder.
“They have always voiced that, despite the injury, they traded for me for a reason.” Saunders said. “They’ve made me feel very comfortable”.
Understanding that his absence helped open the door for Kevin Pillar who, using his glove and flair for the dramatic, has seemingly entrenched himself in the Jays outfield along side Jose Bautista, Saunders is ready to compete for a starting role in left.
Dealing Ben Revere to the Washington Nationals last week, it will now be a two horse race between Saunders and fellow Canuck, Dalton Pompey for left field.
“Competition. As athletes, I feel like you feed off that.” explained Saunders when asked about what promises to be one of the dominant storylines this spring. “The day you get content, the day you feel like you don’t have to get any better, I think, is the day when someone is going to take your job.”
In Pompey, Toronto enlists a pure speed threat who, despite being only 23 years old, has impressed already during his young major league career. Saunders counters with a proven major league offensive threat that, like Pompey, can cover all three defensive positions in the outfield while providing the Blue Jays with an additional veteran presence beside Pillar in center.
“Nothing's mine” expressed Saunders. “I have to earn every job, and every start I get. “
Of course, Saunders impending comeback will be predicated on a successful return to form this spring. One that the now 29 year-old veteran feels is entirely within his reach given the way his knee has responded to rehab thus far.
“It feels normal” explained the revitalized outfielder. “It’s all about conditioning my knee to accept the fact that there’s no longer a meniscus there”.
Confident in his clean bill of health, Saunders is ready to put his injury woes in the past.
“Now that the bone bruise has subsided and is no longer there, I feel just the same as I did when I was playing. It feels like I haven’t had surgery.”
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