High Class A Report

High Desert's Saunders enjoys a power trip




Michael Saunders stood outside the visiting clubhouse at Lancaster before the finale of a recent three-game series and admired the wind that makes Clear Channel Stadium one of the most hitter-friendly venues in minor league baseball.

CALIFORNIA DREAMIN'

• It didn't take Brad Correll long to get into the swing of things with hard-hitting Lancaster. In just his fifth game after the Red Sox signed the 26-year-old out of the independent Northern League, he joined a fellow Lancaster teammate in the California League record books by hitting four home runs in a single game.

The feat had never been accomplished in the California League's 63-year history before Lancaster's Aaron Bates swatted four at home on May 19. Correll, who had been hitting .333/.396/.604 with six home runs and 17 RBIs in 96 at-bats for the Kansas City T-Bones, matched Bates on June 23, going 4-for-5 with eight RBIs in Lancaster against High Desert.

After seven games with Lancaster, Correll had quite a line: .321/.345/1.107 with seven home runs and 15 RBIs.

"I saw the ball well and you feel invincible. It was just a good night," Correll told milb.com. "This team absolutely rakes. It's awesome, it's fun. We have a good thing working here."

CAROLINA IN MY MIND

• Lefthander Carlos Sencion and third baseman Eric Campbell each set a Myrtle Beach record in a late June game—though one was more dubious than the other.

Sencion, who was called up from low Class A Rome earlier in the month—lasted just 31⁄3 innings and yielded two earned runs in the Pelicans 15-6 win over Lynchburg. But scan down his pitching line a little further to discover that Sencion (0-1, 4.40) yielded eight walks to set a team record and bring his season total to 18 in 14 innings.

Campbell scored a run for a ninth consecutive game to set a team record. He failed to reach base the next night. The Pelicans totaled 24 hits in the win, which was merely a season high.

• Lynchburg outfielder Jason Delaney made quick work of the Carolina League, continuing his rise through the Pirates system by earning a promotion to Double-A Altoona. Delaney, 24, was called into manager Jeff Branson's office after a late June game to get the news—which was hardly a surprise considering he led the league with a .340 batting average to go along with nine home runs and 44 RBIs.

POSTCARDS FROM FLORIDA

• Midseason promotions did a number on the FSL leaderboard as many of the league's top pitchers and hitters were promoted to Double-A.

The league's leading pitcher, Yankees righthander Ian Kennedy (6-1, 1.29) was no longer in Tampa after being promoted with Joba Chamberlain (4-0, 2.03) after the duo combined for 123 strikeouts. The league strikeout leader, Brewers righthander Will Inman (4-3, 1.72, 98 strikeouts in 79 innings) was promoted to Double-A Huntsville along with shortstop Alcides Escobar (.325/.345/.377). Devil Rays righthander Wade Davis (3-0, 1.84) was promtoed to Double-A Montgomery. Reds outfielder Jay Bruce ranked fourth in hitting (.325/.379/.586) before a promotion with righthander Johnny Cueto (4-5, 3.53).
"They've canceled games because of the wind here, you know," the Mariners 2004 11th-round pick said, before conceding he'd yet to take advantage of the blustery conditions. "I've just got to get one up in the jet stream."

Saunders didn't hit one that night either but has had little problem discovering a power stroke that has even surprised him—and one that is not meteorologically induced. The 20-year-old British Columbia native—who grew up in Victoria dreaming of being the next Wayne Gretzky, not Kelly Gruber—has emerged this season as a five-tool prospect despite playing against competition often three-or-four years his senior.

After a relatively slow start that saw his average dip to .225 without a home run in early May, Saunders strung together a 14-game hit streak and was at a .310/.383/.509 clip with five homers. He continued the run in June—hitting .337/.415/.587 with another six bombs—and headed into the end of the month with season totals of .295/.396/.483 while matching his career-total of 11 home runs.  He ranked fourth in the California League in steals (21) and third in runs (67).

"I have been a bit surprised by the number of home runs," said Saunders, who will likely continue to progress as he fills out his 6-foot-4, 205-pound frame. "I still don't have (the power) I may have in the future. I was talking to a couple of our rover guys and asked them what kind of player they see me as. They say the power is going to be coming."

Though Saunders may have been taken aback by his success—which earned him a spot on the California League all-star team and an invitation to the Futures Game—Mariners officials are hardly surprised.

"His progression has been what we thought and he's not nearly at the end," Mariners farm director Frank Mattox said. "The strength factor is coming in. He's got a great body and a great frame and he's going to put on some muscle. He has a great swing. We just want to let him go out and play."

Rookie Dog Days

Saunders' pro career was delayed after being drafted in 2004 because baseball faced a visa shortage. He played a year at Tallahassee (Fla.) Community College before Phil Geisler signed him as a draft-and-follow. He hit .270/.361/.474 in his pro debut with short-season Everett in 2005. He followed it up with a solid start at low Class A Wisconsin but experienced something familiar to players in their first full professional season: fatigue.

"My swing got long and I wasn't catching up to the inside ball," Saunders said. "The season was obviously a lot longer than I was used to. It started to wear on me near the end."

Saunders managed just 28 total hits in 156 at-bats in May and June. After stealing six bases in April of last year, he managed just another four over the next two months.

"That happens a lot, especially with high school players," Mattox said. "They're just learning how to play every day. There's the nutrition factor, the travel, it's the middle of the summer and the heat can zap you. I think in his case it was more physical. Some days he didn't have the same kick in his step as he did others."

Saunders worked with his coaches to shorten his swing and made a nice comeback, hitting .292 in July and .308 in August to finish a respectable .240/.329/.345 with four homers, 39 RBIs and 22 steals.

"I learned a lot and it showed just how important the offseason was to getting your body in shape," Saunders said. "I ate better. I lifted harder. I stayed in shape. I didn't know what to expect going into my first season of baseball. I didn't do as well as I would have liked to and I learned a lot from that. One of the big things is if you are playing every day, 140 games, how important the offseason really is."

Man Of Many Sports

Baseball was neither Saunders' first, nor only love growing up. Raised in an athletic family, Saunders was encouraged to play a variety of sports—and he excelled at most of them. He may very well be building toward an NHL career if he hadn't selected baseball.

"I narrowed it down to a winter and a summer sport, and when it came down to it I chose baseball," said Saunders, who also excelled at soccer, lacrosse and volleyball. "You see more and more Canadians in the major leagues. It's opening eyes to guys who want to pursue sports—hockey isn't the only thing you can excel at . . . I'm still a huge Vancouver Canucks fan. During hockey season I follow them every day."

Saunders hopes to become one of the Canadians the boys back home see in the major leagues and has Mariners' officials believing he is on the right course to achieve that goal. He has proven to be able to make adjustments in his swing and has developed from a player looking to make contact at the plate to recognizing pitches he can drive.

"He's developing as a hitter and understanding what pitches he can turn on and drive," Mattox said. "Early on he was making sure he put the ball in play and make good contact. As he gets more at-bats, you're going to see him use even more power down the road.

"He did a nice offseason program, came to spring training stronger and I think he has a better idea of what he is doing . . . He's a good looking player that plays all three outfield positions. That power will continue to develop and he has a decent eye at the plate for someone his age. We're just scratching the surface."