BY John Hickey 09:00AM 05/06/2011

Hickey: M’s do right in giving Saunders a chance

In the absence of Franklin Gutierrez, Michael Saunders seems to be moving ahead of Ryan Langerhans in center field for the Mariners.

Michael Saunders - Seattle Mariners - 2010 - 2

After being relegated to left field early, Michael Saunders is getting more time in center as Mariners see if he has what it takes. / Ben Van Houten, Mariners

The Mariners outfield pecking order has undergone subtle change in the last three weeks.

It’s playing out well for Michael Saunders, who seems to be getting groomed to stick around once the Mariners get back Franklin Guetierrez.

Saunders wasn’t supposed to make the Seattle roster coming out of spring training. The belief was he needed more consistent at-bats and regular playing time at Triple-A Tacoma.

That was before Gutierrez’s stomach problems, later diagnosed as irritable bowel syndrome, forced management into some hasty recalculations. Ryan Langerhans was down to be the outfield backup because he could play all positions. More than that, manager Eric Wedge had some familiarity with Langerhans and knew he could handle the job.

Wedge knew little about Saunders other than what he’d seen in spring training. That wouldn’t have been enough to get Saunders on the roster without Gutierrez being unavailable and creating opportunity.

It showed in April, when, on the three occasions when Langerhans and Saunders were in the lineup at the same time, Saunders was in left and Langerhans was in center.

That’s changed. The Mariners played their fourth May game Thursday night, and in three of the four, Langerhans and Saunders were in the outfield. In these games, however, Saunders has been the center fielder with Langerhans in left.

What it seems to mean is that the 24-year-old Saunders, who had 411 at-bats the last two years, is being given every chance to prove that he belongs in Seattle over Langerhans, 31, who had to play his way onto the roster during spring training and has bounced around the big leagues for almost a decade.

Center field is the more important of the two jobs. By moving Saunders there over Langerhans, Wedge seems to be sending the signal that Saunders is his guy.

Asked about it Thursday, Wedge wouldn’t go that far.

“I’m very impressed with Michael Saunders,’’ he said. “He’s done a good job defensively, reacting to balls and going and getting them.

“It seems to me he’s much more comfortable there now. He’s seeing the ball well and he’s taking good angles to the ball. It’s been fun to see him develop.’’

The club wants to know if Saunders will be a steady contributor over the next few years. An 11th-round draft pick of the Mariners out of British Columbia in 2004, Saunders has shown himself to be a capable hitter in the minor leagues.

He hasn’t shown that yet in the big leagues. There is only one way to find out, and that’s to get him lots of at-bats in a Mariners uniform. Wedge and Co. seem intent on doing that, and it’s the smart thing to do.

Langerhans had three of the first four starts of the season, but gradually he’s been pushed out in favor of Saunders.

Neither is hitting well. Entering Thursday, Langerhans was at .188 and Saunders was .195. The difference has been on defense, where Saunders has the stronger arm. In the last two weeks, he’s turned in some nice catches, both retreating on balls hit over his head and charging on balls in front of him.

Asked if the switch of Langerhans and Saunders was a clue how things would go once Gutierrez comes off the disabled list in the next week or so, Wedge would not say.

“I can’t go into that yet,’’ the manager said. “But we’ll be taking a look at everything between now and the time we get Guti back.’’

Saunders may yet get sent down, because he does have a contract option. Baseball teams aren’t above taking the easy way out. But he won’t get sent down because he didn’t get enough of a chance to show himself.

Follow John on Twitter at @JHickey3


YourThoughts

  • David

    @JHicky3 Michael Saunders is definitely showing to be a major league caliber defensive center fielder, which is great. Although Saunders revamped swing is looking terrible at present, the same could be said for Smoak for most of last year… so there is hope!

  • David

    @JHicky3 Michael Saunders is definitely showing to be a major league caliber defensive center fielder, which is great. Although Saunders revamped swing is looking terrible at present, the same could be said for Smoak for most of last year… so there is hope!