The Mariners love what they've seen in spurts from the athletic Saunders over the past five years. But unless or until he proves capable of providing production on a regular basis, his job will be in jeopardy. And nobody understands that better than Saunders, who had a breakthrough year in 2012 when he hit .247 with 19 homers, 57 RBIs and 23 stolen bases in 139 games, but saw that drop to .236 with 12 home runs, 46 RBIs and 13 stolen bases in 132 games last year.
"The best players are the ones that are most consistent," Saunders said. "That's the name of the game for everybody."
But Saunders felt he took a step in that direction in the second half last year. After seeing his average dip as low as .198 in mid-June, he batted .262 the rest of the way. Small adjustments in moving his hands back and simplifying his swing in the final month left him feeling much stronger, and he's spent the offseason reinforcing that approach.
After consulting with private hitting instructor Mike Bard the past two years, Saunders worked on his own this winter, other than having new Mariners hitting coach Howard Johnson fly out to Denver to spend a few days with him recently at his offseason home.
Johnson, the hitting coach at Triple-A Tacoma last year, spent September with the Mariners and was integral to Saunders' late-season adjustments.
"I knew what I needed to work on going into the offseason. I was really excited about it and I just flew him out to make sure I was doing the right things, because it was him and [former hitting coach Dave] Hansen that were helping me out with it and I kind of connected with HoJo when he got called up," Saunders said. "He was basically just keeping an eye on me and seeing what else he could add to it, now that I've had ample time to work at it.
"We got on the same page, I flew him out and we worked hard for a couple of days and I felt it was very beneficial."
Saunders is pumped up about more than just his own swing. He watched as the Mariners added All-Stars Robinson Cano and Corey Hart this offseason. He's excited to work with new skipper Lloyd McClendon and trusts in the talents of his young teammates, many of whom are also looking to put things all together after getting their first big league experiences in the last two years.
"We brought in some great players, and I guess there's a logjam for a couple different positions, but that's going to work itself out," Saunders said. "The name of the game is competition, and as an athlete you thrive off of it. Everyone is going to be pushing each other, and it's the kind of deal where may the best man win."
Saunders, who can play any of the three outfield spots, figures to compete for playing time with returners Dustin Ackley, Franklin Gutierrez and Abraham Almonte, as well as newcomers Hart, Logan Morrison and Willie Bloomquist.
General manager Jack Zduriencik isn't making promises to anyone, and McClendon will wait to see what he's got this spring before making any judgments. The Mariners could still be in the running for free-agent outfielder Nelson Cruz as well.
So how exactly does Saunders fit in?
"It's up to Michael," Zduriencik said. "With a lot of these guys, we have competition. Who emerges? We'll see. We've been waiting for Michael, as a good example, to get over that hump. We've seen good things, we've seen spurts from him where he's been good. He can play defense, bunt, run, but he hasn't put his game all together yet.
"I think everyone would agree, he's a very talented, athletic kid who needs to take the next step. I could say that about several of our young players. As a group, that's where we're at. We need some of these young guys to take the next step, and he is one of them."
Saunders was a long shot to even make the roster in 2012 after hitting .149 in 58 games the previous year, but emerged that spring as a solid fill-in for the injured Gutierrez and appeared a key part of the young club's future. And after a huge showing for Canada in the World Baseball Classic last spring, he started strong again before running into the outfield wall and going on the disabled list with a shoulder injury.
Due in part to some nagging injuries, things never quite seemed to get fully back on track for him in 2013, though his second-half uptick leaves him bursting with optimism heading into the new season.
"I'm going into Spring Training looking for a starting job," he said. "That's what I've worked hard for in the offseason. I've been telling people that over the last three years. You definitely believe, and it's not just a front. You believe it's going to be a good year and you're going to win. But there's something different, and I can't explain it, heading into this year.
"It's about signing the best free agent on the market, showing the commitment to the city, the fans and the rest of baseball that we're ready to win, and I've really bought into that. It's kind of a different feel going into spring. I'm extremely excited. I truly believe this is going to be a different year for us."