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January 25, 2017

Nearly traded to the Phillies seven years ago, Saunders 'excited to put on the red pinstripes'

On the day that long-time Toronto Blue Jays ace Roy Halladay officially became a Phillie – the same day as the much-maligned Cliff Lee companion trade – Michael Saunders was unpacking his bags at his new home in Denver.

Saunders, who had just turned 23 a month earlier and who had graduated to the big leagues with the Seattle Mariners in the summer of 2009, didn’t have his cable hooked up so he wasn’t aware his team was about to add a former Cy Young winner and recent World Series hero to its roster. But then his phone began blowing up.

He was headed for Philadelphia, according to the reported deal.

“They said I was on the Sportscenter tracker in the trade where we were getting Cliff Lee in that three-way deal,” Saunders recalled in a phone interview with PhillyVoice on Wednesday afternoon. “So I called my agent and he had to do a little bit of digging, he made some calls, called me back and he said, ‘You know what, it's time to to start packing your bags.’”

Coincidentally, most of them were already packed.

But then Saunders’ phone buzzed again 10 minutes later. Stay put, his agent said.

“I was a last-minute subtraction from the deal,” Saunders said. “In my eyes, I was going to Philadelphia. But it ended up not happening. And here I am seven years later putting on the red pinstripes, so I’m excited.”

Back in December of 2009, Saunders likely would have qualified as the best prospect the Phillies would have received in the deal that brought in right-handers Phillippe Aumont, J.C. Ramirez, and outfielder Tyson Gillies. Later that winter Baseball America ranked Saunders as the Mariners second-best prospect for the second-straight winter, and then as the 30th best prospect in all of baseball, too.

If he arrived in Philadelphia that winter, Saunders would have sat behind an All-Star outfield of Jayson Werth, Shane Victorino, and recently-signed Raul Ibanez. Along with Domonic Brown, Saunders would have been likely been asked to compete to take the place of Werth heading into 2011.

Flash forward seven years later and perhaps Saunders can have a Werth-like trajectory in his own career, going from former highly-touted prospect to late-blooming big league outfielder. Saunders, who finalized a one-year free agent deal to join the Phillies last week, hit .253 with a career-best 24 home runs and .815 OPS in 140 games with the Toronto Blue Jays in 2016.

Saunders was a first-time All-Star in his eighth big league season (which was also just the third year he had played in at least 130 games). Heading into last season, Saunders was a career .230 hitter with a .682 OPS in 562 games since ’09.

“The first part of my career, the first two or three years, honestly, I didn’t know how to hit at the major league level,” said Saunders, who turned 30 in November. “I didn’t have much of an approach, I didn’t have a game plan. I was young, I think I put a lot of pressure on myself to perform. And I wore my emotions on my sleeve.

“I think ever since 2012 I’ve started to learn how to hit in the major leagues. I think the biggest thing I did was more mental than physical. Really, giving myself permission to fail. And not taking my first or my second at-bat and having it ruin my game. Realizing it’s one at-bat at a time. I think that’s something that just happens when you get older, you mature, you have more of a solid mental approach.”

Saunders admits he was in a near-perfect situation to succeed as a hitter last year. He was one guy in a lineup full of stars (Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Troy Tulowitzki) and he was able to feed off the near-nightly power show. Six different Blue Jays hit at least 20 home runs in 2016.

But he also felt like his own game was coming together. He was progressing and maturing as a hitter.

“I think more so it’s because I’ve become stronger mentally, not giving as many at-bats away, that kind of thing,” Saunders said. “Baseball is a really tough game and you never expect to fail, you never want to fail, but you have to understand how to deal with failure, especially in this game.”

As the old saying goes, if you fail seven times out of 10 in baseball, you’re a Hall of Fame-caliber player.

“Exactly,” Saunders said with a laugh. “I’m not getting surgery from a guy that fails 7 times out of 10 for sure.”

Saunders did have surgery two years ago that pretty much ruined his first year with Toronto. Less than three months after joining the Blue Jays in a trade with Seattle for former Phillie J.A. Happ (who would re-join Toronto a year later as a free agent), Saunders underwent left knee surgery in late February of 2015. He played just nine games with Toronto that season.

Saunders bounced back with a full season in 2016, but admits the inability to work out early in the previous winter showed up late last year, when he hit .149 with one home run in 24 games after August (but did bounce back by hitting .381 with a home run and a double in eight postseason games).

“My body was just getting tired,” he said.

Nearly two years removed from surgery, Saunders is healthy, strong, and confident after a regular offseason, one that ended with him joining the team he thought he was traded to seven years earlier.

“Ever since that happened, getting taken out of the deal literally within minutes of it going down, ever since then I thought about how cool it’d be to one day be a Phillie,” Saunders said. “And here I am now. And not just that but to see the team, the young talent of the team. … Also, for me, Philadelphia is arguably the best sports city in the country. As far as the teams, the passionate fan base. The Phillies have a lot of history as well.”

The left-handed hitting Saunders is on tap to be the Phillies everyday right fielder, joining Howie Kendrick in an outfield with fellow All-Star Odubel Herrera and likely hitting behind Maikel Franco in the middle of the lineup.

“They were in contact right from the get-go, I think it was November 1 that we all became free agents and it was that day that they expressed a strong interest,” said Saunders, who signed with the Phillies shortly after his former teammate Bautista agreed to rejoin Toronto. “We stayed in contact throughout the entire offseason until we worked out a deal. But there’s something to be said about feeling wanted, and Philly definitely made me feel that.”

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21