TORONTO - The Toronto Blue Jays acquired outfielder Michael Saunders from the Seattle Mariners on Wednesday in exchange for left-hander J.A. Happ in a deal that essentially closes the door on the possibility of free agent Melky Cabrera returning to the team.
The deal was the latest move by Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos in what has been a busy off-season. He recently dealt longtime first baseman Adam Lind to the Milwaukee Brewers, acquired star third baseman Josh Donaldson in a trade with the Oakland Athletics and signed catcher Russell Martin to a lucrative long-term deal.
Saunders, a 28-year-old Victoria native, is expected to be the everyday left-fielder for the Blue Jays.
"We like the fact that Saunders can play all three outfield spots if needed, we think he's going to play an above-average defensive left field," Anthopoulos said. "(He's) a left-handed bat, which is appealing as well (and) can steal a base - he's stolen 21 bases before. We think he has some power in going from that ballpark (Safeco Field) to ours.
"He can unlock some things in our lineup as well and the two years of (team) control is nice too."
Saunders, who was selected by the Mariners in the 11th round of the 2004 draft, hit .273 with eight homers and 34 RBIs in 78 games last season. He spent parts of six seasons in Seattle but battled injuries this year, including joint inflammation in his right shoulder and a strained left oblique.
"He's always been a productive player and a big part of that is he brings so much with his defence and his base-running that he's always going to provide value to the club," Anthopoulos said. "From an offensive standpoint I think the expectations have always been high, because he's a five-tool player, he can do everything and sometimes that isn't fair.
"We're not placing those expectations on him to hit in the middle of our lineup, to carry the offensive load. ... The way we see it, he's a guy who played 139 games in 2012, 132 games in 2013, obviously missed time this year but he did hit 19 home runs in 2012 and still had a pretty solid OPS in '12 and '13 in that ballpark. ... If we got the Michael Saunders from '12 and '13 we'd be very, very pleased."
Happ was uneven over parts of three seasons in Toronto, but had a solid second half to the 2014 campaign. He was 11-11 on the year with a 4.22 earned-run average over 158 innings.
His departure improves Aaron Sanchez's chances of making the starting rotation.
"He's going to be stretched out in spring training, but it certainly has increased his odds," Anthopoulos said. "But he's still going to have to earn a spot right now, depending on what else we might do."
Sanchez, a 22-year-old right-hander, was brilliant out of the bullpen in his first season with the Blue Jays. He was 2-2 with a 1.09 ERA in 24 appearances, striking out 27 batters and issuing nine walks.
Cabrera, meanwhile, declined the Blue Jays' US$15.3-million qualifying offer last month to test the free-agent market. There was interest in a potential return but the two sides were too far apart on contract talks.
Cabrera hit .301 in 139 games last season with 16 homers and 73 RBIs. He missed the last few weeks of the season due to a fractured finger.
Anthopoulos still has plenty of work to do. The bullpen will now likely get his full attention and he could still use an upgrade at second base.
Also Wednesday, the Blue Jays signed first baseman Justin Smoak to a US$1-million, one-year contract, a day after he was non-tendered by the team. Smoak was acquired Oct. 28 off waivers from the Mariners.
Smoak batted .202 with seven homers and 30 RBIs in 80 games with the Mariners last season.
Toronto also agreed to terms with centre-fielder Ezequiel Carrera on a minor-league deal with an invitation to major-league spring training.
Notes: The Blue Jays have added an exhibition game against the Canadian national junior team to their pre-season schedule. A Toronto split-squad will face the juniors March 15 at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium. ... The Toronto chapter of the Baseball Writers' Association of America unveiled its 2014 award winners Wednesday. Slugger Jose Bautista was a unanimous choice for player of the year. Right-hander Mark Buehrle was pitcher of the year, right-hander Marcus Stroman was rookie of the year and Cabrera was named most improved player. Right-hander Casey Janssen was the winner of the John Cerutti Award, given to the person who exemplifies goodwill, co-operation and character.
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