PEORIA, Ariz. -- Mariners outfielder Michael Saunders has many times been like a surgeon without his scalpel, a maestro without his baton.Saunders can play the outfield as well as anyone, has a strong arm, possesses power at the plate, shows surprising speed for a player his size and has proved in the Minor Leagues he has the potential to be a solid multi-tool player. But when Saunders has been given an opportunity with the Mariners, he hasn't been able to bring that most important tool to the plate -- the ability to hit consistently. In 572 at-bats over parts of three seasons with Seattle, the outfielder has managed only 112 hits for a .196 average. Last season, Saunders appeared in 58 games for Seattle, batting .149. As a result, the 6-foot-4, 215-pounder has spent more time in the Minors than many experts had predicted. But if this Spring Training is any indication -- and it certainly should be -- that is about to change. Nothing has been decided yet, but chances are Saunders is going to bring a full toolbox to work at the Tokyo Dome on Opening Day on March 28, when the Mariners kick off the 2012 slate against Oakland.
When Franklin Gutierrez suffered a partially torn pectoral muscle early in Spring Training, it opened the door for Saunders. At this point, he has taken full advantage of it. Entering Wednesday night's game against Kansas City at Peoria Sports Complex, Saunders was leading the Mariners in batting at .409 (9-for-22) with a home run. On Tuesday against Milwaukee, Saunders ripped his second and third doubles of the spring.Manager Eric Wedge has not said who will open the season in center field, but it's clear Saunders is making a good impression. "Saunders has been very impressive this spring," Wedge said after Tuesday's game. "He's been spraying the ball all over the place, driving the ball all over the place and obviously he plays a real good outfield for us, too. And he's pretty good on the basepaths." Saunders credits two factors for his performance. During the offseason, he worked for the first time with an independent coach to change his hitting approach, employing a more compact swing to cut down on the strikeouts and use all of the field. "I feel good. I'm staying with my approach to the swing, not getting away from it, working hard and doing what I need to do," Saunders said. "I worked hard on the mechanical aspects of my swing, and I believe in it -- that's the biggest thing." Saunders says that, as important as it was to work on his swing, it may be more important that he worked on his head. The Victoria, B.C., native admits that there were times in the recent past when he was almost afraid to go to the plate for fear of failing. "The thing I worked hardest on during the offseason was my mental approach to the game," he said. "I'm confident now, and each time I'm up, I'm looking to do some damage, to harm the ball. "In the past, I was very passive -- scared to fail, to be honest. I just got deeper and deeper into a hole I just couldn't get out of. I got my butt kicked the past couple of years, and I'm sick and tired of it. I was borderline desperate. "This year, coming in, I really changed my mentality. I know that sometimes I'm going to swing at something in the dirt, or over my head, but the difference is I'm going to swing like a man." Saunders says he has the full support of Mariners hitting coach Chris Chambliss. It was evident during batting practice Wednesday, when Saunders and Chambliss talked and took turns demonstrating mechanics. "We were talking about my routines, staying with my approach," Saunders said. "He understands what I'm doing, so he's going to keep an eye on me and prevents me from getting out of the routine that I'm in now." Saunders knows that if he continue to get good results, he has the chance to crack the starting lineup. But he's taking nothing for granted. "I don't know [if I'll be the starter]. Do I want to be, of course," he said. "It really hurt the club with [Gutierrez] going down. ... Luckily it happened now, early in the spring, so hopefully he can get back soon. I know that if it's me out there or whoever, we're going to do what we can to help the team win games."
Jim Thomas is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.