Phillies Upgrade Right Field, Sign Michael Saunders
In what will likely be the final piece added to the offensive puzzle heading into 2017, the Phillies signed Michael Saunders Monday to a one-year deal worth $9 million with an incentivized option for 2018 worth between $11-14 million. The 30-year-old Saunders, an All Star last season in his second of two with the Toronto Blue Jays, will help plug the Phillies’ right field leak that last season put up the second-fewest wins above replacement (according to Baseball-Reference) in the majors, and finished last in weighted on-base average and wRC+. The position, which was manned in 2016 by Peter Bourjos, Aaron Altherr, Jimmy Paredes, Tyler Goeddel, David Lough, Roman Quinn and Cedric Hunter also ranked in the bottom three in the league in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage.
Sources: Saunders deal with #Phillies one year, $9M with club option. Option worth $11M, can increase to as much as $14M with escalators.
— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) January 16, 2017
That cadre of right fielders hit just eight home runs last year, tied for fewest in the majors. Saunders, whose main draw is his power from the left side, has matched or topped eight homers in every season that he’s played at least 78 games.
Pete Mackanin made it known at the end of 2016 that he wanted to add a professional hitter or two to the lineup. With Howie Kendrick and now Saunders strengthening their deficient corner outfield spots, Matt Klentak granted him that wish.
In my season recap infographic last week, I noted the four positions at which the 2016 Phillies ranked worst or second-worst in MLB by wins above average: left field, right field, first base and the bullpen.
Having traded for Kendrick to play left, adding Joaquin Benoit and Pat Neshek to the bullpen and declining the 2017 option on Ryan Howard’s contract (think addition by subtraction), the Phillies have upgraded at all four positions most in need of upgrades.
Saunders is coming off the best power season of his eight-year career. Over the course of a career-high 140 games, he posted personal bests with 32 doubles, 24 homers, a .478 slugging percentage and .815 OPS.
His first half propped up those numbers, however, as he slashed .178/.282/.357 with eight home runs in a smaller second-half sample size (58 games) compared to his .298/.372/.551 slashline (.923 OPS) and 16-homer first half that earned him his first career All Star appearance.
Although he struggles with plate discipline – his 28.1% strikeout rate ranked 11th-lowest of all outfielders with 400 plate appearances – his left-handed power will help split up the right-handed power bats of Tommy Joseph and Maikel Franco in the heart of the order.
Here’s my best guess at how the 2017 batting order shakes out:
Saunders posted interesting reverse splits in 2016. While posting above league-average numbers against both righties and lefties, his 147 wRC+ against left-handers was significantly better than his 108 wRC+ while facing right-handers. Sixteen of his 24 homers did come against righties, but he put up better numbers across the board against lefties.
Those 2016 reverse splits were a deviation from his career numbers. But were they to hold steady this season, they would only benefit a Phillies lineup whose 78 wRC+ against left-handers was better than only the Dodgers last season.
What impact does this have on those who, prior to this acquisition, would have played right field? This moves Aaron Altherr from a potential starting role in right to a bench role, and all but guarantees that Roman Quinn, another option prior to the Saunders signing, will begin 2017 in Triple-A Lehigh Valley where he can continue to get reps.
The glimpse of Quinn the organization got when they brought him up at the end of 2016 was valuable. He was unlikely to be as bad as what the team had seen in the corner outfield spots for the entirety of the season and they clearly saw enough big league potential to not worry that a major league stint to close his age-23 season would stunt his growth. But it was not enough to make him the full-time right fielder heading into 2017, and for a guy that skipped Triple-A entirely, that is no cause for concern.
Should Quinn, Nick Williams or Dylan Cozens – who look slated to join Lehigh Valley’s league-best pitching rotation as the best outfield corps in the International League – make a push for the majors, the organization will have decisions to make come mid summer. But the addition of Saunders gives the club another lottery ticket on a short-term deal that could turn into a trade deadline option for a contending team should he jump out to a quick first half similar to his fast start to 2016.
There is no guarantee that any of these players (Clay Buchholz, Saunders, Kendrick or either of the newly acquired bullpen options) can be flipped, and it’s often overstated how “easy” it is to flip these types of guys at the deadline. But the more lottery tickets one has, the better chances one pans out. And these players, unlike literal lottery tickets who have no immediate value until the winning numbers are announced, add value and professional experience to a team in desperate need of it with every at bat and every inning pitched.