3/22/2014 7:50 P.M. ET
Saunders' strong spring could impact outfield mix
By Greg Johns / MLB.com
PEORIA, Ariz. -- There was a lot of talk this spring about young Mariners outfield candidates like James Jones and Xavier Avery. Abraham Almonte is being given every chance to win the starting center-field job. Newcomers Corey Hart and Logan Morrison are the focus of frequent discussion when they've had chances to play in the outfield.
But quietly, without fanfare, Michael Saunders has gone about having an excellent Spring Training. With Dustin Ackley secured in left, and if Almonte wins the center-field job and Hart is healthy enough to play right field, it remains to be seen exactly where Saunders plays.
Yet as spring winds down, Jones and Avery are back in Minor League camp, and Hart and Morrison have played sparingly in the outfield as they return from knee issues. And Saunders? All he's done is lead the team in RBIs with 12 entering Saturday's games, while hitting .324 and displayiing outstanding defensive range in right field.
"I'm just showing up, ready to play, ready to work, ready to learn," said the athletic 27-year-old. "Especially with the new coaching staff, everyone has a lot to offer. When I'm in there, I'm just trying to go about my business and play baseball. Wherever I'm playing that day, I'm just showing up to the park and going along for the ride."
The steady approach has caught manager Lloyd McClendon's attention.
"He's made some changes to his swing, and I like what I see," said the new Seattle skipper. "He's a little more aggressive at the plate and is hitting it to all fields. He's worked hard and done a heckuva job. I've been very impressed with what I've seen."
Saunders hit .247 with 19 home runs, 57 RBIs and 21 stolen bases in something of a breakthrough year in 2012, but he battled injuries last year and saw the numbers dip to .236 with 12 homers, 46 RBIs and 13 stolen bases while getting 101 fewer at-bats.
But the native of Victoria, B.C., has the size, speed and range to be an important part of the club, and he could well wind up playing right or center field, or both, depending how things play out in the coming days.
"I came into camp ready to compete for a job," Saunders said. "There's somebody always competing for your spot and ready to take your job. It motivates you and fuels the fire for your offseason workouts. I'm just trying to get better on a yearly basis. I feel like this is a year for me where I need to take the next step.
"I saw some signs at the end of last year with a minor change in my swing, and I worked at it this offseason and have continued to work on it this spring. I feel like it's going good, and I'm just trying to take this momentum into the season."
Walker, Pryor thrilled with Minor League outings
PEORIA, Ariz. -- Top Mariners pitching prospect Taijuan Walker gave up two hits and a run in a one-inning start in a Minor League game against the Padres' Triple-A club Saturday, and he said his arm felt great in his first game appearance of the spring.
Walker, 21, arrived at camp in early February with a sore shoulder and was shut down for a week starting Feb. 28 after being diagnosed with inflammation in his bursa. But he's been pain-free since then, throwing three strong bullpen sessions in the previous nine days before making his spring debut on the Padres' main practice field.
Walker gave up a double and a triple and uncorked a wild pitch that allowed one run to cross the plate, but he was thrilled that he felt strong in a 15-pitch stint that saw his fastball clocked at 93-96 mph.
"I was pumped," Walker told reporters afterward. "I was trying not to be. I felt like I wasn't overthrowing or trying to throw too hard. It's a lot different with a hitter in there. You have to spot up and throw strikes."
Walker threw mostly fastballs and a few changeups in the game, then went to the bullpen and threw 15 more pitches, including some breaking balls, to complete his day's work.
"I walk away happy because my arm feels good," he said. "This was like a test game to see how it felt. The location and all that will come. I felt pretty good. My fastball location was pretty good. Not where I wanted, but I was happy with it."
Right-handed reliever Stephen Pryor followed with a 1-2-3 second inning, his first game action since having surgery on the latissimus dorsi muscle behind his right shoulder in August.
Pryor needed only 11 pitches to get two groundouts and a strikeout.
"I was excited," Pryor said. "This is the first time my arm has felt right since I got hurt last year in April. So it's almost been a year. I was excited and I'm glad it went the way it did. It's something to build off of. I feel back to normal. I'm not thinking where my arm slot is or whether this one is going to hurt or not, so it's been really nice."
Both pitchers will open the season on the disabled list but are hoping to return in mid- to late-April if all goes well.
"They threw the ball well," said Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon. "Very encouraging. Everything is starting to move in a positive direction."
• Robinson Cano went 0-for-4 against the Rockies on Saturday to snap his nine-game hitting streak and drop his Cactus League batting average to .500 (18-for-36). He's still in the hunt to set a Mariners record for highest average in a spring, which Michael Morse set at .492 in 2008.
• Shortstop Brad Miller continued his scorching spring by going 2-for-4 with two doubles against the Rockies. He's batting .467 with four doubles, four triples and four home runs and continues to lead the Cactus League in slugging percentage at a healthy 1.000.
• Scott Van Slyke, the son of Mariners first-base coach Andy Van Slyke, went 2-for-3 with a two-run homer as the Dodgers' left fielder in their 3-1 win over the D-backs in the 2014 MLB Opening Series in Australia on Friday night. "He's a proud papa today," said Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon.
• Right-hander Brandon Maurer threw well in a bullpen session Friday and will have another on Sunday as he returns from a back issue that has slowed him most of the spring.
McClendon said the 23-year-old is feeling much better and threw without pain Friday but is far enough behind that "it would probably take a miracle to get him ready" by Opening Day. Maurer will need to face live batters next week and continue progressing before a decision is made on where and how he'll start the season.