The Case Against Signing Joe Saunders


At the December 12th non-tender deadline, the Arizona Diamondbacks declined to offer a contract to starting pitcher Joe Saunders – who was coming off a solid, though not spectacular season in which he went 12-13 with a 3.69 ERA in 212.0 innings. He has pitched over 200 innings each of the last three seasons, a trait that Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo has been searching for, especially after missing out on Mark Buehrle. Saunders is also only 30 years old, younger even than C.J. Wilson. Saunders grew up in nearby Falls Church, VA and pitched at Virginia Tech, making Washington a logical fit for him. However, the organization would likely be much better served letting Saunders sign elsewhere.

Rizzo is seeking a veteran starting pitcher to serve as a positive example for the young starters in the rotation, a description that Saunders does not fit well. He does not have the requisite experience for such a role, partly because he’s never advanced past the ALCS, whereby a Buehrle or a Roy Oswalt have both been to the World Series – when Buehrle’s White Sox defeated Oswalt’s Astros in 2005. Oswalt and Buehrle are also both much more decorated than Saunders. Oswalt has five Top-5 finishes for the Cy Young Award. Buehrle has appeared in four All Star Games and has a perfect game under his belt. While Saunders has only been invited to a single All Star Game. If the Nationals want to bring in a model and mentor for Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann, they would be well served to choose someone who has had a sub-4.00 ERA more than twice in his career.

Saunders does not match what the Nationals want in a starting pitcher, but regardless of the remaining free agent market I don’t think they should add a starting pitcher at all. I wrote an article on this subject earlier, so I won’t pontificate too much here, but there are a few points worth noting. First, the rotation is already full. Strasburg, Zimmermann, John Lannan, and Chien-Ming Wang seem guaranteed spots. Brad Peacock, Tom Milone, and Ross Detwiler are expected to compete for the last spot and have all labored in the minor leaguers for too long to spend another full season in Triple-A, which would be the case if the team added another starter*. Signing another starter would also be expensive, likely at least $8 Million, and could handicap the team’s other financial pursuits if the pitcher wanted a deal longer than 2 years.

* Editor’s Note: Detwiler is actually out of options, meaning if he doesn’t make the 25-man roster out of Spring Training the team will have to risk losing him to waivers before he could be sent down to Triple-A.

Looking at Saunders’ career numbers, this past year seems to be aberration, and he will likely regress to his norms – a 4.00-4.50 ERA and 1.400-1.500 WHIP – not exactly impressive numbers. He doesn’t have the experience to mentor this pitching staff and his only true saving grace appears to be his ability to throw a lot of innings. The Nationals’ rotation is full which means adding Saunders would do nothing more than hinder the Washington youth movement by blocking a Milone or Peacock and inhibiting their development. The cons of signing Saunders far outweigh the pros, and that money could be better spent elsewhere. It could go towards Yoenes Cespedes, filling that nagging center field hole, or towards an extension for Ryan Zimmerman, both options that would help the team a lot more than two years of a middling starter like Joe Saunders.