By: J.P. Antonacci
Canadian Baseball Network
DUNEDIN -- Tony LaCava is excited for Toronto Blue Jays fans to see what prompted the team to trade for Canadian outfielder Michael Saunders before last season.
In Grapefruit League action this spring, Saunders is providing quite the preview.
Speaking after Saunders’ breakout game Saturday in Dunedin – in which the 29-year-old from Victoria clubbed two homers and knocked in five runs – Toronto’s assistant general manager told Canadian Baseball Network that if Saunders stays healthy, the club is confident he can contribute.
“We don’t have any doubt that there will be results,” LaCava said. “Most importantly, Michael looks, to me, healthy, and he looks like he’s able. There’s a reason why Alex traded for him. We believed in him then, and we believe in him now.”
Saunders followed his big afternoon against Philadelphia – he added a single and made several clean plays in the outfield – with another home run on Monday versus Atlanta.
His production at the plate and ease of motion in the field prompted Blue Jays manager John Gibbons, in an interview with MLB.com on Sunday, to confirm that Saunders will be Toronto’s everyday left fielder to start the season.
“I don’t see him hobbling around. I think he feels good about that, too. It’s always at the back of everybody’s mind,” Gibbons told reporters prior to Saturday’s game.
“I know he’s encouraged. I like what I see. So far, so good.”
For his part, Saunders says he is raring to put his injury woes in the past and help the Jays return to the post-season.
“I feel like a kid again,” he told CBN.
“I’m happy to be out here playing after missing all last year. I feel strong; my knee’s healthy. I’m not gonna lie, I’ve had the jitters. Really excited, a little nervous for the first couple games.
“But it’s been nice just to get these out of way, get some plays in the outfield, get some at-bats. I feel a lot more at home now.”
After trading pitcher J.A. Happ to the Seattle Mariners for Saunders in December 2014, Toronto had high hopes the outfielder could add power and speed to their lineup.
But Saunders stepped on a sprinkler head chasing a fly ball in the early days of spring training, tearing his left knee and leading to surgery to remove most of his meniscus.
He made it to the field in late April, but continuing knee problems sent him back to the disabled list after nine games.
Saunders spent a few months rehabbing his knee in Florida, but when it became clear his season was over, he travelled with the team, taking in the playoff run – his first taste of the post-season – and the electric atmosphere at Rogers Centre.
“I tried to be a part of it any way I could,” he said. “Unfortunately, I had to put the pom-poms on and cheer them on, but if that’s what it took to get me in that dugout and be with the guys again, I was going to do anything I could.”
LaCava said he was heartened to see Saunders back on the field and operating at game speed.
“It’s just unfortunate last year, with the injury,” LaCava said. “But if he plays, we believe he’s going to be a productive player.”
The news that Saunders will patrol left field every day likely means an impending demotion for Dalton Pompey, the other half of Toronto’s short-lived all-Canadian position battle.
The club wants the speedy outfielder from Mississauga to get regular at-bats in Buffalo, rather than riding the pine as a fourth outfielder in the bigs.
Saunders’ name came up in unconfirmed trade rumours earlier this off-season, rumours that again cast doubts on his physical health. But Saunders said it’s not hard for him to block out speculation and get ready for the season ahead.
“Luckily I don’t have Twitter or Facebook or anything like that,” he said. “I’m not a social media guy, so if I want to find out anything, I have to go looking for it. I try not to do that.”
Instead, he’s looking forward to success on the field, where he plans to be every day.
“It’s moreso a mental grind, playing 162 (games) and being out there every single night,” he said. “I think we just have to feed off each other as teammates. This is our family away from our family. We gotta keep each other accountable, we gotta keep each other on our toes.
“This is a great veteran clubhouse,” he added. “We have a lot of fun in the clubhouse, but we know once we step on the field, it’s business time. We’re looking forward to winning a lot of games this year, and that’ll help us get through the dog days of August.”
Before those dog days are the hopeful days of spring, and with Saunders’ knee feeling good and his bat already in midseason form, he’s primed to add more big moments to his baseball resumé.
“This is a dream come true for me, playing for what I consider my hometown team – at least, my home country team,” Saunders said.
The Baseball Canada product said it’s been “incredible” to have his family and friends from Victoria watch him play on baseball’s biggest stage.
“I lost my mom in 2011. My biggest memory is I hit my first home run on Mother’s Day in 2010. She was in the stands for it,” Saunders said.
“My dad’s followed me all throughout my career; they try to get to every game. I know that my parents are very proud of me, my family’s proud of me. And throughout the good times and the tough times, they’ve always been behind me.”
Saunders, and the Blue Jays, are hoping for more good times ahead in 2016.