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Pirates sign Michael Saunders to minor-league deal

The 2016 All-Star will battle for a spot on Pittsburgh’s Opening Day roster.

Toronto Blue Jays v New York Yankees Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

UPDATE (Fri. 2/23): Pittsburgh granted Saunders his release after the club’s acquisition of Corey Dickerson. The Royals announced Friday that they have picked up Saunders, also on a minor-league deal.

ORIGINAL: The Pirates have signed outfielder Michael Saunders to a minor-league contract with an invitation to major-league spring training, per a club announcement Wednesday.

After making the AL All-Star team in 2016 with the Blue Jays, Saunders’ career has taken about as ugly of a turn as a former All-Star’s can take. He followed up a .298/.372/.551 first-half slash line with a .178/.282/.357 line after the break, and he was gradually phased out of the lineup down the stretch (though he did regain a starting role during the ALCS and posted a 1.071 OPS over 14 plate appearances). Saunders signed a one-year, $9 million deal with the Phillies that featured an $11 million club option for 2018 last January, but after hitting .205/.257/.360 with six homers over his first 214 plate appearances with Philadelphia, he was designated for assignment on June 20. Saunders quickly re-signed with the Blue Jays on a minor-league deal, but he struggled to distinguish himself at Triple-A Buffalo and wasn’t recalled until September. Over 20 late-season plate appearances with Toronto, Saunders hit .167/.250/.167.

Saunders will join a growing outfield competition in Pittsburgh that is expected to feature a battle for the starting left field spot and perhaps a reserve role that could be up for grabs. Adam Frazier is the current favorite to win the left field job, though Christopher Bostick, Jordan Luplow, Austin Meadows, Daniel Nava, and Bryce Brentz — who was acquired from the Red Sox on Tuesday — will also push for playing time. Sean Rodriguez figures to add depth at all three outfield positions, though Rodriguez and Frazier could be needed in the infield if the Pirates trade either David Freese or Josh Harrison, both of whom have publicly criticized the Pirates’ lack of urgency to win this offseason.