Taking a Second Look at Joe Saunders

This past Sunday our very own Andrew Flax argued against the Nationals pursuing free agent starting pitcher Joe Saunders. Andrew’s argument centered on two factors – Saunders’ lack of experience in high pressure situations and the fact that 2011 may have been an aberration compared to his career norms. While Andrew’s argument is a justifiable one, it would seem as though it is just one of the many arguments out there on the very subject.

Over at The Nats Blog, Joe Drugan came to the opposite conclusion regarding Saunders. He focuses on Saunders’ track record throwing a lot of innings while recognizing that his peripheral stats aren’t overly dominating. Though he does note that Saunders is relatively young and could be a serviceable stopgap while the team waits for next winter’s crop of free agent starting pitchers. While Joe’s Editor, Will, makes it known in the comments that he disagrees – referring to Saunders as a “less talented John Lannan” – but it does present an interesting discussion on the matter.

There are numerous factors that need to be taken into consideration here when it comes to gauging how the team should approach Saunders. First, as both sides mention, Saunders is originally from nearby Falls Church, VA. He grew up in the Washington area and spent his collegiate career pitching at Virginia Tech. He’s a local kid, which holds a certain appeal to both player and team. Saunders could pitch at baseball’s highest level in his own backyard. While the team simultaneously gets the added draw for the fans to witness the hometown kid. It’s a nice part of the story, but ultimately this isn’t truly a factor that is going to significantly sway the organization one way or another.

Saunders was 12-13 with a 3.69 ERA during the 2011 season with Arizona. He added a 1.307 WHIP, 8.9 H/9, 2.8 BB/9, and 4.6 K/9 in 212.0 innings. For a point of comparison, the best season of Saunders’ young career was likely 2007. He went 17-7 with a 3.41 ERA that year, adding a 1.212 WHIP, 8.5 H/9, 2.4 BB/9, and 4.7 K/9 in 198.0 innings. Aside from the win/loss totals the two seasons were relatively similar, suggesting that his 2011 campaign wasn’t quite an aberration after all.

The left-hander has pitched over 186.0 innings each of the past four seasons – a trait that Mike Rizzo has made it clear he values in any potential starting pitching acquisitions. But with that durability has come a mixed bag of peripheral results. Saunders has trouble limiting baserunners – as evidenced by his career WHIP, BB/9, and H/9 marks – and has never truly possessed much of a strikeout tendency – aside from brief stints in the minor leagues during the 2002 and 2007 seasons.

Over his MLB career he’s averaged roughly 15 wins a season with an ERA just over 4.00, but there seems to be an absence of any overly dominating traits that lead me to believe that Saunders would be a better option that anyone the Nationals currently have internally. John Lannan and Ross Detwiler are currently the two left-handers that figured to play a role in the team’s 2012 rotation. Coincidentally, they’re the same two pitchers who Saunders could potentially replace if he were to sign with Washington.

Lannan holds a career 4.00 ERA in 751.0 innings, with H/9, BB/9, K/9, and WHIP rates very similar to those of Saunders’ career averages. He’s three years younger and under team control for an extra year. He also will likely cost less in 2012 than Saunders did in 2011. I’m going to have to agree with Will’s initial assessment, Lannan’s the better option.

As for Detwiler, he’s even two years younger than Lannan and will be under team control for an additional two seasons. He doesn’t have nearly the experience that either Saunders or Lannan have to date, as Detwiler has only pitched a total of 172.1 innings in his career. Yet, he too holds similar career marks in ERA, WHIP, H/9, BB/9, and K/9. He may be out of options this Spring, but right now I’m inclined to think that he too would be a better option than Saunders.

Saunders is not a terrible pitcher, but we do not have the luxury of always viewing performance in a vacuum. Despite the numbers and statistical analysis, the fact remains that there was a reason for Saunders being non-tendered by the Diamondbacks: he wasn’t worth the salary he would have cost. Ultimately, this is the factor that will end up reigning supreme when it comes down to whether or not the Nationals should, or will, pursue signing him.

Arizona paid Saunders $5.5 Million in 2011, terms the two sides agreed to last January to avoid arbitration. This winter he would have been eligible for arbitration for the final time before reaching free agency at the end of the season. Most projections seemed to have his likely 2012 salary somewhere in the neighborhood of $7.5-8 Million – a figure that the Diamondbacks were clearly not looking to pay. Leading up to the non-tender deadline there were rumblings that the two sides were nearing an agreement on a two year deal, which would have bought out Saunders’ first year of free agency, but since the sides parted ways there has been little evidence that a deal is close. The left-hander has, however, been linked to a number of teams in both the AL and NL, which quite frankly isn’t a big surprise considering nearly every organization is always on the hunt for starting pitching depth.

Saunders may still be a serviceable pitcher in the Major Leagues and I don’t doubt that he will be given an opportunity to start somewhere, but it would seem as though Andrew and Will were both correct here: Washington just isn’t where that is going to take place. The left-hander is a marginally more established pitcher than the team’s two current options – two pitchers who are younger, under team control for longer, and will cost less. That alone seems reason enough to pass on Saunders.

Tags: Joe Saunders John Lannan Ross Detwiler Washington Nationals

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