On Monday, Jon Heyman of MLB Network reported on a potential three-team trade that would send Cincinnati outfielder Jay Bruce to the Blue Jays, Toronto outfielder Michael Saunders to the Angels, and prospects to the Reds. However, the trade fell apart by the end of the night (via Buster Olney) due to medical issues with one of the prospects. MLB Daily Dish has the full roundup on the non-trade.
So, what does this have to do with the Oakland A's? According to Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports, there was an earlier iteration of the trade in which the A's were the the third team involved (instead of the Angels), and Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports goes a step further by reporting that the deal would have included Oakland sending a "B" prospect in return for Saunders. To give an idea of what a "B" prospect might look like (my speculation), Jacob Nottingham received a B+/B grade from John Sickels in January, as did Renato Nunez, while Chad Pinder and Matt Chapman both received straight B grades. (Yairo Munoz and Richie Martin received straight B- marks.)
Of course, we know now that, for one reason or other, the A's moved on from that concept and instead swung a deal with the Brewers that netted slugger Khris Davis in exchange for Nottingham and 2015 sixth-round pick Bubba Derby. We don't know exactly why the A's didn't complete a deal or who said no to whom, but that hardly seems to matter now. The question at hand is this: Should we be happy that the team ended up with Khrush, or would they have been better off acquiring Saunders instead?
Who is Michael Saunders?
When thinking about players on other teams with whom you aren't hugely familiar, sometimes it's useful to start with a bit of word association. If you'd said the name Khris Davis to me a month ago and asked for the first thing that popped into my head, I'd have said "dingers." All I really knew about him at the time was that he had lots of power, and it turns out that's a pretty good summary of his game. He's neither a defensive ace nor a total deadweight in the field, he doesn't hit for a crazy-high or crazy-low average, etc. He's a solid player who has one particular strength, and that is his home run power.
If you were to say the name Michael Saunders to me, my response would be "Mariners." That's partly because he was drafted by Seattle and spent the first six seasons of his career there, but also because he just seems like a good representation of the team. He's got talent, and he's not a bad player, but his numbers don't jump off the page at you and he hasn't lived up to his Top 100 prospect pedigree. If he were in my team's everyday lineup then I wouldn't call that a specific weakness, but I'd consider it to be an area for potential improvement; I'd like him a lot more as a fourth outfielder. That, to me, is the definition of Mariners (at least, post-2001).
If you asked me for a second response to the name Michael Saunders, it would be "injured." He has been derailed by injuries several times in his career, and that's played a role in preventing him from getting established. He debuted in 2009, but not after recovering from shoulder surgery (labrum). He began 2010 in the minors (still only 23 years old) and ended up playing 100 games for Seattle that year with only a couple bang-ups, but in 2011 he was demoted in June after posting a .168 average over his first 43 games. He did manage 139 MLB games in 2012 and 132 in 2013, but those represent his career-highs. A shoulder issue followed by an oblique strain ended his 2014 season after just 78 games, and that number went down to 9 in 2015 as he struggled to recover from offseason knee surgery. He'll be 29 this season and he's never played 140 MLB games in one year.
And what about his actual skills on the diamond? His career OPS+ is below-average at 93, though that mark is weighed down by the fact that he debuted at age 22 (and may not have been quite ready). I think it's more telling to look at his two full-ish seasons in 2012-13. Here they are, averaged together:
Saunders, 2012-13 avg: 136 games, .242/.314/.416, 107 OPS+, 16 HR, 9.5% BB, 24.5% Ks
At his best and healthiest, he is a marginally above-average hitter. His offensive profile is comprised of a low batting average, decent on-base skills, and middling power -- again, so Mariners. He did steal 21 bases in 2012, but again, he just missed an entire season due to a lingering knee issue, so I wouldn't count on seeing him do that again. On defense, the metrics generally agree that he is atrocious in CF and belongs in the corners, where he is actually above-average (or, he was, through age 27 and with a working knee).
Would he have fit in Oakland's lineup?
Add it all up, and what do you have? I see a left-handed hitting version of Mark Canha, more or less, if Canha didn't improve at all from last year. Saunders might play better defense, but he also strikes out quite a bit more. Another comp: Khris Davis but with far less power. Remember that my comp for Davis is what Canha would do if he broke out this year.
Replacing Canha with Saunders in LF seems like it would have been a lateral move at best, and that's if Canha didn't build at all on his promising rookie season and Saunders stayed healthy all year. More likely, it could have been a slight downgrade (or a prospect wasted while Saunders sat on the DL and Canha played anyway).
Look, I would have been perfectly happy entering the season with Canha as the primary plan in LF. I know that a lot of folks disagree with me on that, and that Canha is no sure bet to break out like I think he will. Rolling with him is probably an example of using optimism as a strategy, and even with a new outfielder on board there's every chance that the A's will still find regular playing time for Canha in their mix-and-match system. But last year, when he got the chance to play every day, his improvement was unmistakable. He's earned his shot in my book.
That said, I can understand the acquisition of Davis. He clearly fills a dire team need with his powerful bat, and while there are lots of double-digit homer guys up and down the lineup he finally gives the A's a legitimate 30-homer threat. He brings something that the A's lacked and adds a new dimension to the club, and he's also under team control through 2019. I still want to see how Canha will get his 500+ at-bats before I deem that trade a true plus, but at least I get why they did it.
But Saunders? I can't for the life of me imagine why Oakland would go after him. He has skills but doesn't bring anything that the team doesn't already have, he carries enormous risk, and even if all goes great he's a free agent after the season. And all of that could have cost someone like Pinder or Chapman or Munoz to acquire (or maybe even Nottingham himself).
Rest easy, A's fans. With all due respect to the players involved, it's for the best that this Oakland rumor didn't come to fruition. It would have been a questionable decision, and in its place they made a far better move to get a more talented and longer-term outfielder who is a superior fit for the roster. Sometimes the best move is the one you don't make.