Since signing Aroldis Chapman to a free agent contract, the Yankees have remained relatively quiet on the free agent market. They continue looking to trade for a starting pitcher, but nothing looks to be brewing there. Reports suggest that the Yankees are set on offense since they signed Matt Holliday to a one-year deal, however, things change. The market has slowed in the past few weeks, and many players who were expected to be off the board by now, or too expensive for Brian Cashman to bother, are still available. It could be time for the team to get a little creative.
Right now the Yankees don’t have a regular, everyday right fielder. Aaron Judge might be your easy answer, but it can’t be ignored that he struck out 44.2% of the time during the 27 games he spent in the majors last season. Signs say that he might just need time to adjust to the level, but you’re putting an awful lot of hope into a 24-year-old rookie without any backup plan just in case. Aaron Hicks exists, but he isn’t someone I trust, and should really only be considered a platoon bench bat at this point. Instead, what if the Yankees went out and picked up a cheap free agent to fill the gap just until Judge proves he’s ready? And stay with me here, but what if that player was Michael Saunders?
2016 Statistics: 140 G, 558 PA, .253/.338/.478, 10.6 BB%, 28.1 K%, 117 wRC+, 1.4 WAR
Age on Opening Day 2017: 30
Saunders had been a replacement-level outfielder for the first few years of his career with the Mariners. Then, for three seasons between 2012-2014, he averaged about 2.0 WAR per season. Seeing his rise in value, Seattle sent him off to the Blue Jays, but things fell apart when Saunders tore the meniscus in his right knee during his first spring training with his new team. He would ultimately miss most of the 2015 season.
It was difficult to expect much from him in 2016, but he managed to surprise many people when he hit .298/.371/.551 with 16 home runs through the All-Star break. He had finally arrived, despite the lack of cartilage in his knee. But in the second half, Saunders could only manage a .178/.282/.357 batting line with eight home runs. His fall back down to earth was dramatic and unforgiving. Just when it appeared that he was ticketed for a Qualifying Offer and a fat free agent paycheck, everything was terrible again.
Of course, questions remained regarding how healthy he really was over the length of the season. He may not have missed any major time, but such a stark change in performance must have a reason. Remember, Jacoby Ellsbury was deemed healthy in 2015 after suffering a knee injury, and it clearly had a negative effect on his on-field performance. Rumors have surrounded Saunders and his knee for months now, dating back to last offseason, when a proposed three-team deal between the Reds, Angels, and Blue Jays—which would have sent Jay Bruce to Toronto and Saunders to Anaheim—was scratched due to someone’s bad medical records (later revealed to be a prospect on Toronto’s end).
However, whispers continue to swirl this offseason, as unconfirmed reports suggest he failed a physical with the Orioles that ultimately nixed a potential deal. The only team who has been linked to Saunders since he declared free agency has been Baltimore, so this could explain why their interest suddenly dried up, even with their need for a right fielder. Whether or not these rumors are true, the concern over his health is legitimate, and any team must do their due diligence before they sign him.
All this is to say that the Yankees could have their perfect candidate for a stopgap outfielder this year. Saunders clearly has no suitors to speak of, and as long as the team conducts a thorough evaluation of his physical capabilities, they should have no problem offering him a one-year deal at minimal cost to the organization (since that’s what they are all about these days.) He’s young enough to potentially turn things around and stay healthy. Give him some incentives based on plate appearances, and it could be the perfect job to help him gain back some value for next offseason.
If there is even a chance he can be anything like the player that he was in the first half of 2016, then the Yankees should take it. In the end, though, it doesn’t really matter because they have Judge behind him. Give Saunders a few months to get his bat going in the big leagues, with Hicks getting some at-bats against left-handed pitching. If he can’t pick himself back up, they can easily cut him and let Judge play. If he’s good, they can get something for him at the deadline. It’ll work out either way, honestly.
No matter what happens, it needs to be stated that Aaron Judge is the future, but there’s no harm in bringing in Michael Saunders to help fill the gap. For all we know, Saunders could surprise us all.