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Saunders' strong spring could impact outfield mix

Saunders' strong spring could impact outfield mix

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.

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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."

Greg Johns is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB as well as his Mariners Musings blog. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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