03/02/12 7:58 PM ET
Saunders ready to seize opportunity in center
By Greg Johns / MLB.com
Saunders, 25, has teased the Mariners with his athletic potential for several years, but never lived up to the considerable promise displayed in his rise through the Minor Leagues. Yet the 6-foot-4, 215-pound outfielder has a different approach this spring, one that has inspired confidence and a belief that he's ready to prove his doubters wrong.
It didn't take long to back that up with results as Saunders slugged a two-run home run in his first at-bat in Friday's 8-5 victory over the A's in the Cactus League opener.
His long, looping swing has transformed to a shorter stroke after two months of working over the offseason with a 60-ounce bat while wrapping resistance bands around his knees and shoulders to force his body to stay compact.
And his frame of mind?
"I was tired of getting my butt kicked the last couple years," said Saunders, who has hit just .196 in parts of three seasons with Seattle. "So I went out and searched for answers and I feel like I answered my own questions. Now I need to answer other people's questions."
One of the first will be whether he's the man to fill in for Gutierrez as the season opens. Clearly Saunders is the Mariners' most natural defensive center fielder outside of Gold Glove winner Gutierrez. But he had the same opportunity at the start of last season when Gutierrez opened the year on the disabled list, yet he hit just .149 in 58 games and eventually found himself back in Triple-A Tacoma.
He headed into the offseason searching for a new start and found one in Colorado when he and his wife, Jessica, moved to Castle Rock outside of Denver, just down the street from former Mariners catcher Josh Bard.
Bard, who signed this offseason with the Dodgers, told him he should talk to his brother, Mike Bard, a hitting coach who was already working with Matt Holliday and David Freese of the Cardinals.
Bard had thoughts on how to help and Saunders eagerly soaked up his ideas. He only had a week to implement the new program before heading to Venezuela for winter ball and that wasn't enough to help, but he dove head-first into the program upon his return.
Two months later, he's still using the bands and the heavy bat in the hitting cages every morning.
"The resistance keeps me compacted," he said. "And after an hour in the cage, it's a pretty good workout because it's not something I'm used to. I've always been a long, levered kind of guy and I feel that's what really got me in trouble."
Saunders' approach worked in the Minors, but he struggled when facing a steady diet of quality pitchers who exposed the holes in his long swing.
Coming into this spring, it was hard to see where Saunders might fit. Gutierrez was back in center field, Mike Carp's promising bat penciled into left, and Ichiro has been a staple in right for a decade.
But things can change in a hurry, and as Gutierrez went down, Saunders was displaying his new-found approach by going 4-for-7 with three walks, a home run, a triple, a double, three RBIs and four runs in three intrasquad games.
Saunders, who dealt with the death of his mother as well as his struggles at the plate last year, feels for what Gutierrez is going through now.
"Obviously we all saw he'd worked his tail off to get to where he was at after a tough year he had last year with health issues and everything," said Saunders. "I know he was very excited to come in here and start playing ball the way he was used to again. It's going to be a huge loss for us, because we're all looking for him to have a big year.
"I'm just going to go out and play hard every day and continue to try to hit the ball and square it up. Someone has to fill in and obviously I hope to be that guy."
Mariners manager Eric Wedge has liked the aggressive approach at the plate he's seen from Saunders all camp, which in his mind is the final piece of the puzzle everyone is waiting on from the Victoria, B.C., native.
"The talent has never been an issue for him," said Wedge. "You look at the other parts of his game and the other parts are finished off. So it's about that one tool, albeit the most-important tool. But I'm very encouraged and we'll see just how real it is."
Saunders understands his clock is ticking. He knows there are only so many opportunities to show what he can do. But he feels he's on to something with his new hitting approach. And if he builds on that, the Mariners might have a story similar to Carp's last year with a player who pieced things together after several return trips to the Minors.
"I know I can be a good Major League ballplayer, an everyday guy, but I knew I had to switch some things," Saunders said. "I'm no longer a 22-year-old prospect that they're just going to give at-bats. I have to earn every single at-bat I get and this is the start of it."