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Saunders rolls with adjustments on field, at home

SEATTLE -- Michael Saunders faces some interesting changes this offseason. He's up early every morning helping care for his new-born daughter, Aria, for one. He's awaiting word as to whether he'll be invited to play for Canada in the upcoming World Baseball Classic, for another.

But one thing Saunders won't be changing is the unique hitting program he developed last winter in conjunction with private batting instructor Mike Bard. Saunders believes that this program was the catalyst for resurrecting his Major League career with a breakout 2012 season for the Mariners.

After hitting just .149 in 58 games for Seattle in 2011 and failing to find any improvement in a brief stint in Venezuela Winter Ball, Saunders returned to his new home just outside Denver and got serious about re-inventing his game with Bard.

Together, they came up with a plan to shorten Saunders' swing and tighten his plate approach by hitting constantly with his arms and legs constricted by large rubber bands while using an ultra-heavy bat.

Coupled with a more aggressive mental approach, Saunders looked like a different player in 2012, batting .247 with 19 home runs, 51 RBIs and 21 stolen bases while playing an excellent center field in place of oft-injured Franklin Gutierrez.

Saunders' .432 slugging percentage dwarfed the .308 mark he'd put up in his first three seasons in Seattle. His .738 OPS was tied with Kyle Seager for second on the club behind John Jaso, and manager Eric Wedge constantly noted that Saunders was "just scratching the surface" of what he could bring as a five-tool player with speed, power and athleticism.

Saunders stuck with the bands and heavy bat through the entire season. Every day, he worked with the restrictive bands in place in the hitting cage. And in batting practice, he lugged out a 45-ounce bat -- as opposed to his 31-ounce game bat -- for the first two rounds of hitting before each game.

"The bigger bat forces me to use my lower half," Saunders said. "It's too heavy for me to swing with just my hands and arms and wrists. So it's another tool to help my body stay compact in my swing.

"It still feels new to me and I know I've definitely changed, but it's something where I have to continually remind my body that this is the way to do things. So that and the bands really help."

Saunders, 25, isn't about to change that approach now as he heads into winter in Castle Rock, Colo., where he and his wife Jessica purchased a home last year that coincidentally was in the same neighborhood as former Mariners catcher Josh Bard.

That led to his meeting Mike Bard, Josh's brother, who was already working with a few other Major League hitters.

"Last year, I kind of had to start from zero," Saunders said. "We had to learn what worked for me. So we're very excited to head into this offseason knowing we laid a foundation, and now we can build from that."

Bard stayed in contact with Saunders throughout the season by phone, and even visited him on the road about once a month.

Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik said the club is fine with Saunders following his own hitting program, comparing it to many veteran hitters who come to a new team and bring previous ideas that have worked for them.

"The basics are usually the same," Zduriencik said. "Guys want to get bigger and stronger and more flexible. A lot of improvement is about timing and when a guy commits himself. I think Michael got to the point where he was ready to do it. He was open to a lot of ideas.

"There's not just one way to do anything. If Michael has found his niche with what he did last winter, we're with him. Sometimes it's the same message from a different messenger. In Michael's case, we're all happy that he did what he did, and it's working for him."

Saunders' only offseason uncertainty at this point is whether he's going to be playing for Canada in the World Baseball Classic, which would mean he'd miss at least the first few weeks of Spring Training with the Mariners. Many Major Leaguers face that same situation, including potentially Felix Hernandez and Erasmo Ramirez for Seattle, but the young outfielder said he'd work with the Mariners if he is invited.

"I always consider myself competing for a job coming into camp," Saunders said. "I don't ever feel safe. That's my biggest thing. If I get an opportunity and the Mariners give me the go-ahead and fully support it, then I'd consider it.

"It's something I'd love to do, if Canada gave me the honor of asking me to represent them. I love representing my country, and it's always a lot of fun. But I need to make sure I'm a Mariner first."

As for that other change?

Saunders is busy these days dealing with diapers and helping care for his daughter, who was born Sept. 24. He doesn't need an alarm clock any more to wake up early. But after having to immediately depart to finish up the season with the Mariners after Aria was first born, he's now soaking up his "Daddy" time at home with his growing family.

"It's completely different," Saunders said. "Again, I'm having to make an adjustment. Not just with baseball, but with life."

Judging from the smile on his face, that one figures to be a home run, as well.

Seattle Mariners, Michael Saunders