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Why were the Arizona Diamondbacks interested in Michael Saunders?

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The team talking to another outfielder is rather puzzling.

ALCS - Toronto Blue Jays v Cleveland Indians - Game Two Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

The Diamondbacks’ signing of Gregor Blanco earlier this week makes some sense, when viewed in the consensus light of the team’s situation. He offers a left-handed fourth outfielder, who can back up the expected everyday starting trio of David Peralta, A.J. Pollock and Yasmany Tomas. But the team’s apparent interest in Michael Saunders, as Tweeted by Jerry Crasnick, is rather harder to understand in the same way. Of course, it’s hard to be sure about the level of Arizona interest. And Saunders is another left-handed outfield bat, so at first glance, it could seem a case of the team kicking one set of tires, then moving on to another option.

While that may have been part of the logic, Saunders and Blanco are also significantly different in some ways. Although their number of games played last year wasn’t that drastically far apart (Saunders had 140 games, Blanco 106), the latter was very much a bench player, and only started 56 times for the San Francisco Giants. As a result, he managed fewer than half as many plate-appearances as Saunders. If the Diamondbacks were interested in Saunders, it would likely have been as an everyday player, commensurate with his price. For he ended up getting at least $8 million, not including the $1 million buyout on a 2018 option, worth $11 million plus incentives.

The obvious question would then be, why would the Diamondbacks be interested in adding an everyday outfielder, given the apparently settled nature of the Peralta, Pollock and Tomas outfield mentioned? It would seem extremely unlikely to be to take over from Pollock, with Saunders having single-digit starts in center during the past three seasons. So, if signed, he would presumably have been a replacement for Tomas or Peralta, either of which would be a significant surprise. I suspect it would most likely mean a trade of Tomas, given the amount he’s going to be paid going forward - $9.5 million this year, $13.5 million in 2018, and potentially more after that.

That would seem the most obvious way to have freed up both salary room and roster space for Saunders. While Peralta has his issues, most obviously his ongoing struggles with left-handed pitching, he’s not even arbitration eligible until next year. It’s a lot easier to tolerate flaws like that, when the player is earning close to league minimum and has a career OPS+ of 120. But on the other hand, it would seem strange to be looking to sign another outfielder, if the Diamondbacks didn’t already have a buyer at least somewhat lined up for Tomas. I guess we’ll know the truth about that in the next few weeks.

As for Saunders, our apparent interest would be in line with recent acquisitions, Chris Iannetta and Blanco, in also having decent plate discipline skills. Last year, Saunders’s walk-rate was 10.6%, compared to an MLB average of 8.1%, so that perhaps gives credence to Crasnick’s Tweet. However, with that comes a high strikeout rate, reaching 28.1% last year (MLB avg = 19.6%), and his numbers did show a sharp decline across the board in 201. His line after the break was .178/.282/.357, following a first half which was good enough to get him to the All-Star Game. Defensively, his numbers have been decent in the corners for his career, but were below average in 2016.

All told, if you were in the market for an everyday outfielder, you could probably do worse than Saunders for the money. But I wasn’t aware that the Diamondbacks were in the market for an everyday outfielder. If the rumor of their interest in Saunders is accurate, then the biggest moves by Arizona this winter, could still be to come.