The offseason is upon us and Hot Stove talk has begun. The Twins figure to be looking for two main things this winter: some starting pitching and a left fielder. We're well aware of the pitching struggles, and the left field need can be shown by utilizing the FanGraphs' depth charts. According to their predictions, the recipient of the most playing time in left field in 2015 appears to be Jordan Schafer. Now, he did amaze after a waiver claim last season as he triple-slashed .285/.345/.362 with 15 steals, but if we included his numbers from his Braves days in 2014 he still only hit .238/.310/.305 overall. Toss in his career numbers of .229/.311/.310 and it's pretty clear that left field should not be trusted to just him.
FanGraphs is aware of that and also tosses in Chris Parmelee, Eduardo Nunez, Aaron Hicks, and interestingly Max Kepler. However, none are projected to play well enough to be a significant asset this coming year as all are predicted to put up 0.3 WAR or less. If you haven't checked, that 0.3 highwater mark will apparently come from Parmelee and everyone else is expected to produce even less. Thus, it's pretty clear that a left fielder is needed.
Now, I understand that many Twins fans would want to see a big splash such as signing Nelson Cruz, Yasmany Tomas, or even bringing back Torii Hunter. We're well aware though that this is simply not how the Twins operate, so instead of picking out some low-cost free agents that could compete for a starting spot in next season's lineup, I'd rather turn to the trade market. Specifically, I'm targeting Michael Saunders of the Seattle Mariners.
Just a few days ago, the Mariners made it known that they were shopping Saunders around. The reason is that he's an injury-prone outfielder that can't really play center field in spite of being thrown out there regularly and the Mariners also tossed in some accusations that his conditioning was terrible. They've already watched Franklin Gutierrez's disappearing act and were so fed up with it that they acquired Austin Jackson from the Tigers, so I have to imagine seeing Saunders fail to stick on the field has been doubly annoying.
Not only are the Mariners looking to get rid of Saunders, but apparently there are some possible suitors as well. Granted, this is speculation more than an actual rumor, but it's rather telling when another SB Nation blog (Royals Review) is also touting Saunders as a possible acquisition. The reason the Royals would be interested in Saunders is pretty much the exact reason why the Twins should consider him too. He's relatively cheap ($3 million projected salary for 2015), youngish (28 years old for all of 2015), and has experience with all three outfield spots.
Of course, Saunders comes with his warts. I've already mentioned his injury history and the Royals Review link does a great job outlining in detail every one of those bumps and bruises (eat your heart out, Jim Souhan). He's lefthanded and the Twins could probably use another righthanded bat instead, since Kurt Suzuki, Trevor Plouffe, and Brian Dozier figure to be the only righties in the starting lineup. Even though he's played plenty of center field in his career, he's not particularly good at it according to the defensive metrics. Finally and perhaps the biggest issue on the surface is that he's not even really adept at hitting the ball, either.
Well then, why should the Twins consider Michael Saunders? Simply put, we need to dig a little deeper into the numbers. First, it's true that Saunders does not grade well in center field. However, that's not our primary focus here, that's why Danny Santana, Aaron Hicks, and eventually Byron Buxton are around. Once you look at the corners, though, Saunders looks like a more attractive option. Admittedly he's only played about a year's worth of games in left and roughly half a year in right throughout his career, but his UZR numbers are much better than his atrocious center field rating. I'd assume he's likely at least average in the corners, and he sure as hell won't be as bad as what we saw out of Josh Willingham out there.
Second, his offensive numbers are hurt because of the place he called home, Safeco Field. His career batting line is .231/.301/.384, which certainly isn't great. But, when you separately his home and away splits, we see that Safeco (.219/.290/.357 at home) definitely hides the fact that his away numbers (.241/.311/.409) were far more palatable. Taking a look at park factors from last year, we see that Safeco rated last in runs scored, hits, and doubles, and it was 28th in triples. But hey, the park was 12th in homers last year, so moving the fences in worked!
Meanwhile, Target Field rated 3rd in runs, 14th in homers, 2nd in hits, and 9th in both doubles and triples. Last year those numbers were 12th, 27th, 8th, tied for 5th, and 15th, so I think it's safe to say that Target Field isn't as much of a pitcher's park as we first thought when it opened in 2010. Likewise, since its offensive data has rated higher than Safeco's, I feel we could also assume that Saunders' offense would get a little boost upon moving to Minnesota.
Finally, Saunders has been a productive regular when healthy. He's put up 5.3 WAR in the past three seasons spanning roughly 350 games. That performance has coincided with a stabilized BABIP that has stayed around .300 for those three seasons after being victimized by bad luck and an inability to make contact when he was younger. He can draw some walks and steal some bases, and adding it all together gives the Twins a good role player for the 2015 season.
Next season, the Twins don't need a savior in left field. All they need is some competency on the defensive end and a bat that isn't completely worthless. The offense was 5th in the league in runs scored last year, so adding a small chip like Michael Saunders should help the team improve without costing them too much in players or salary. Now the question is, do the real decision-makers agree?