The “superstar” reference was made by Canada manager Ernie Whitt after the outfielder was named first-round MVP of Pool D at the World Baseball Classic in Phoenix.
“He’s just a tremendous up-and-coming outfielder that’s going to be a superstar,” said Whitt of Saunders, who hit .727 (8-for-11) in three games with a home run, seven runs batted in, .769 on-base percentage and 1.273 slugging percentage.
Saunders is trying to build on a breakout 2012 season in which the 26-year-old Victoria native hit .247 with 19 home runs, 57 RBIs and 21 stolen bases for the Mariners. But he struggled prior to the WBC, going 4-for-18 (.222) with two homers.
Saunders will start in right field for Seattle this season, while WBC teammates Justin Morneau (Minnesota) and Joey Votto (Cincinnati) are also assured regular playing time.
Others, like Canadian catcher Chris Robinson (Baltimore) have returned to spring training looking to break camp with their team. The Pittsburgh Pirates have reassigned starting pitcher Jameson Taillon to minor league camp but he could make his major league debut before the season is over.
Robinson, who has played 566 professional games but zero in the majors, went 2-for-5 before leaving for the WBC. Taillon, a 21-year-old prospect, turned in four stellar innings against the United States (one earned run, three strikeouts) and appears to have a bright future as a major leaguer.
Below is a status report on the 30 other Canadians at major league spring training.
JIM ADDUCI, OF, Texas: Adduci, 27, remains in camp after signing a minor league contract in November but is unlikely to crack the Rangers’ opening day roster. The native of Burnaby, B.C. is a career .282 hitter over nine minor league seasons. JOHN AXFORD, RP, Milwaukee: Axford’s spring struggles continued at the World Baseball Classic, where he allowed a run on two hits over 1 2/3 innings pitched. In three spring games with the Brewers, the Port Dover, Ont., native is 0-2 with a 13.50 earned-run average. He lost the closer’s role last summer and finished the season with 35 saves and a 4.67 ERA.
PHILLIPPE AUMONT, RP, Philadelphia: The Phillies hopeful struggled at the World Baseball Classic, surrendering three runs on five hits in 1 2/3 innings for a 16.20 earned-run average. The 24-year-old native of Gatineau, Que., is battling Mike Stutes and Justin De Fratus for a bullpen job.
JASON BAY, OF, Seattle: The New York Mets castoff appears to have regained some power at Mariners camp, having hit two homers in his first seven games. Bay, who hails from Trail, B.C., also managed seven hits in 18 at-bats (.389) after hitting just 26 homers and playing only 288 games in his three years in New York due to injuries.
ERIK BEDARD, SP, Houston: Veteran left-hander has been limited to two innings this spring due to a right glute sprain. Bedard, 34, threw 10-12 pitches off the mound March 8, is expected to return to game action this week and should win a rotation spot. The native of Navan, Ont., went 7-14 with a 5.01 earned-run average in 24 starts with Pittsburgh in 2012.
MIKE BLANKE, C, Chicago White Sox: The 24-year-old Blanke of Granby, Que., was sent to the club’s minor league camp on March 5 after going 0-for-1 in three pre-season games. He hit .240 with 10 home runs for Winston-Salem (N.C.) of the Carolina League in 2012.
NICK BUCCI, RP, Milwaukee: He was optioned to double-A Huntsville (Ala.). The 22-year-old right-hander from Sarnia, Ont., withdrew from the World Baseball Classic to continue work on strengthening his shoulder. Last season, Bucci suffered a significant latissimus dorsi strain behind his shoulder in minor league camp but was named to the Brewers’ 40-man roster this winter.
LUKE CARLIN, C, L.A. Angels: A non-roster invitee to spring training, Carlin, 32, is 0-for-10 in pre-season games and likely headed to triple-A Salt Lake to start the season. The one-time resident of Aylmer, Que., hit .252 in 62 games with Cleveland’s triple-A affiliate last season.
JESSE CRAIN, RP, Chicago White Sox: A shoulder injury forced the Toronto-born reliever to withdraw from the World Baseball Classic. The 31-year-old, who missed 22 games last season with shoulder problems, has a 2.54 earned-run average in two seasons with Chicago covering 113 1/3 innings.
LARS DAVIS, C, Colorado: Davis is embroiled in probably the most contested spring battle at Rockies camp. The 27-year-old from Grand Prairie, Alta., didn’t have a hit in two at-bats through his first five games but hit at a .287 clip with nine homers for double-A Tulsa last season.
RYAN DEMPSTER, SP, Boston: Native of Gibsons, B.C., said no to a World Baseball Classic invite because he felt he wasn’t ready physically to pitch in the tourney. Dempster, 35, has yet to walk a batter in 8 2/3 innings this spring after winning a combined 12 games with the Chicago Cubs and Texas last season.
SCOTT DIAMOND, SP, Minnesota: Left-hander from Guelph, Ont., working his way back into game shape after having a bone chip removed from his elbow in December. Diamond, 26, is scheduled to appear in a game March 18 for one or two innings after winning 12 games for the Twins in 2012.
JEFF FRANCIS, SP, Colorado: The 32-year-old southpaw is fighting for a spot in the Colorado Rockies rotation. Francis had six wins and a 5.58 earned-run average in 24 starts for Colorado in 2012 but hasn’t allowed a run in his first 13 innings this spring.
TYSON GILLIES, OF, Philadelphia: Phillies prospect didn’t record a hit in 14 at-bats as Canada’s leadoff hitter at the World Baseball Classic but shone with his glove. The 24-year-old Vancouver native has a chance to open the season in the majors as Delmon Young will start the season on the disabled list.
TAYLOR GREEN, 3B, Milwaukee: Brewers hopeful was pressed into a starting job at the World Baseball Classic when injured Brett Lawrie withdrew from the tourney. A 26-year-old from Comox, B.C., Green hit .286 (4-for-14) at the WBC after batting .184 in 58 games for Milwaukee last season.
RICH HARDEN, P, Minnesota: The oft-injured righty from Victoria threw off a mound early at Twins camp but has been playing catch only recently. There is a good chance Harden, 31, will start the season in the minors, perhaps as a starter at double-A or triple-A.
JIM HENDERSON, RP, Milwaukee: Brewers’ set-up man was handed one of Canada’s two losses at the World Baseball Classic after giving up five runs (all earned) on five innings in one inning of work over two games. Henderson, 30, had a 3.52 earned-run average and three saves in 36 appearances for Milwaukee last season.
SHAWN HILL, SP, Detroit: The 31-year-old is back at Tigers camp after allowing two runs (both earned) in 2 2/3 innings pitched in Canada’s World Baseball Classic opener versus Italy. Hill has a 4.69 earned-run average in 45 major league games with Montreal, Washington, San Diego and Toronto.
GEORGE KOTTARAS, C, Kansas City: Kottaras, 29, is battling Brett Hayes for part-time catching duties with the Royals. The former Oakland Athletics backstop, who hails from Scarborough, Ont., has some power (24 homers in 249 major league games) and reportedly has played strong defensively at spring training.
BRETT LAWRIE, 3B, Toronto: Energetic Blue Jays vows to play in the team’s season opener April 2 against Cleveland despite dealing with a strained rib cage muscle that forced the Langley, B.C., native to miss World Baseball Classic. Lawrie, 23, had four hits in 15 spring training at-bats before the injury.
CHRIS LEROUX, P, Pittsburgh: Montreal-born right-hander was stellar in his lone start at the World Baseball Classic, limiting Mexico to one unearned run and two hits over three innings. Leroux, who is vying for a long relief job with the Pirates, blanked the opposition in his first three spring training outings (four innings, five strikeouts) out of the bullpen.
ADAM LOEWEN, OF, Toronto: Converted pitcher is back at Blue Jays spring training hoping to latch on with the team’s double-A affiliate in New Hampshire. Loewen, 28, spent three years in the Jay’ system before moving to the New York Mets’ triple-A affiliate last season, where an injury limited him to 59 games.
KYLE LOTZKAR, RP, Cincinnati: The 23-year-old hurler from Delta, B.C., was sent to double-A Pensacola on March 12. The Reds prospect threw one inning of relief against Canada’s World Baseball Classic squad on March 6 after tearing the labrum in his right shoulder last season. He went 7-6 with a 4.55 earned-run average in 2012 with Class A Bakersfield and double-A Pensacola.
RUSSELL MARTIN, C, Pittsburgh: Martin caused a stir leading up to the World Baseball Classic, saying he would join the Canada squad only if he could play shortstop. The Pirates and Canadian team officials rejected his request and Martin is at spring training with his new team after signing a two-year, $17-million US free-agent deal. The Montreal catcher is off to a slow start at the plate with two hits in his first 15 at-bats.
MIKE NICKEAS, C, Toronto: Vancouver-born catcher was part of trade that brought knuckleballer to the Blue Jays in December. Known more for his defensive abilities, the 30-year-old Nickeas hit .174 in 47 games with the New York Mets last season. He could stick with Toronto or play for its triple-A affiliate in Buffalo.
PETE ORR, infield, Philadelphia: Orr, who played second base for Canada at the World Baseball Classic, is competing for a roster spot with the Phillies. Signed to a minor league deal in November, the 33-year-old hit .315 in 57 plate appearances for Philadelphia in 2012.
JAMES PAXTON, SP, Seattle: The 24-year-old left-hander is one of the Mariners’ top pitching prospects but has been the subject of trade rumours. Paxton, who hails from Richmond, B.C., missed five weeks last season with tendinitis in his right knee and fashioned a 6-1 record and 2.40 earned-run average in 11 starts upon his return.
OSCAR TAVERAS, OF, St. Louis: The highly touted Taveras, 20, probably will start the season in the minor leagues despite torching double-A pitching last season for a .321 batting average, 23 home runs and 273 total bases in 477 at-bats. Born in the Dominican Republic, the power-hitting Taveras lived in Montreal from ages 12 to 16.
MARK TEAHEN, 3B, Arizona: Once a promising Kansas City Royals outfielder, the former Toronto Blue Jay is trying to make the Diamondbacks this season after hitting .260 in 500 plate appearances last season for the Washington Nationals’ triple-A affiliate. Raised in Yucaipa, Calif., he is a Canadian citizen because his father Mike was born in St. Marys, Ont.
NICK WEGLARZ, OF, Tampa Bay: Weglarz, 24, is likely bound for double-A or triple-A. The Rays signed the native of Stevensville, Ont., in November after Weglarz hit .239 in 109 games with 14 home runs and 58 runs batted in for double-A Akron.