Joe Saunders: last SP standing

yeah, that's about how i feel too - Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Chris Capuano's gone. Erik Bedard's gone. Roberto Hernandez's gone. Jason Hammel's gone. Scott Baker's already a Mariner. Are there any back-end starters left on the...? Oh, no. Oh please God no.

The URL says it all, really.

Let's be real: everyone loves to say "I told you so." Always. Doesn't matter whether or not they're willing to admit it. In fact, everyone especially loves to say "I hate to say it, but I told you so". Few phrases do a better job of letting you declare yourself the smartest person in the room without provoking the ire of everyone else nearby.

With that being said: I told you so.

Way back in late October, I was chatting with Scott, and I suggested that the Mariners might not be crazy to pick up Joe Saunders' mutual option. Even then, it was pretty obvious that the team needed SP depth, and it was no sure thing that they'd be able to bring in an upper-tier starting pitcher. Scott, who (to put it delicately) despises Safeco Joe and everything he stands for, immediately tweeted this:

A month later, when I wrote a post compiling my greatest mistakes of the 2013 season, my Saunders suggestion came up in the comments. Everyone else still hated the idea. But I stuck with it, saying "I maintain that he's likely to be one of the better back-end signings of the offseason. He's a 1-2 WAR SP who's going to get paid like a total scrub because he had a down year."

Well, here we are. It's late February, and the Mariners have a Hisashi-Iwakuma-shaped hole in their rotation. And the only pitcher they've signed so far has been Scott Baker. And the starting pitching market is absolutely barren. Let's see... what options do they have left?

1) Trade Nick Franklin and some stuff for a starting pitcher.

This is probably the most sensible option, as Nick Franklin simply doesn't have a job on the Mariners right now and is a reasonably valuable trade chip. Unfortunately, it takes two to tango, and from what we've seen so far teams don't seem terribly inclined to give up worthwhile returns for just Franklin. The Rays look to be holding on to David Price. The Cubs might still move Jeff Samardzija, but it sounds like they want James Paxton, so that trade would fill a front-of-rotation hole by creating a back-of-rotation one. Teams aren't usually interested in trading good starting pitchers during spring training, and I have to think that if there were an appealing Franklin trade out there the Mariners would've made it already. This might still happen, but I'm not holding out hope.

2) Sign Ervin Santana.

We've been through this. Santana would make the team better, but he's always been the least appealing of the three big domestic free agent pitchers - which is probably why he's the last one left on the market. Like Nelson Cruz, he seems a risky bet and a likely overpay. Of course, Cruz just got 1/8 from Baltimore, so who knows? Perhaps Santana's final contract will be something reasonable. Perhaps he'll get a deal in the Phil Hughes or Jason Vargas range. (Boy, the Twins and Royals would feel pretty stupid then, wouldn't they?) On the other hand, teams like to play copycat, and Santana could wind up with a 4/50 contract like the ones given to Nolasco, Garza and Jimenez. On the third hand, the usually reliable Enrique Rojas seems to think that the Mariners aren't even interested in Santana. I'm not sure I can blame them.

3) Sign another back-end starting pitcher.

All right, all right, let's go through this. Who are the best non-Santana FA pitchers left on the market? Stroll on over to the Fangraphs Projected RoS WAR page, scroll down to the free agent pitchers section, and... welp. There are only four FA SPs left with projections for more than 1 WAR.

Rank Name WAR
1 Ervin Santana 2.9
2 Jeff Karstens 1.9
3 Joe Saunders 1.5
4 Johan Santana 1.3

Ervin Santana was discussed above. The projection for Jeff Karstens strikes me as inflated: the dude's hysterically injury-prone, to the point that the Pirates non-tendered him last year only to re-sign him for $2.5M on a one-year contract. Santana's certainly interesting, and there's upside there. But I can't help but feel that the Mariners already have enough injury reclamation projects (Scott Baker, Corey Hart, Logan Morrison, Randy Wolf, Joe Beimel, Franklin Gutierrez) without signing another fragile pitcher.

And that leaves... well, that leaves Joe Saunders.

Look, I know it's not a pleasant idea. I know he's the most boring pitcher on the planet, and I know he was bad last year. But everything we said about Joe Saunders last offseason is still true. He's a great fit for the park. He's cheap. He provides lots of innings. Last year, Joe Saunders had a lower xFIP than Jason Vargas, and while none of the other more advanced stats liked him quite as much, there's no good reason why Vargas should get 4/32 while Saunders is stuck with a contract for less than 1/5.

Dave Cameron said it pretty well, three months ago:

If the Mariners can get Joe Saunders on a major league deal for less than Chris Capuano signed for, then they should strongly consider it. If they can get him on a minor league deal, they should do it now.

Look, this is the Mariners' own fault. I'm this close to dubbing their offseason a failure. If they can't add about five more wins' worth of talent before opening day, the odds of the 2014 season going well for them are pretty negligible. And they've got 240,000,000 reasons why the 2014 season needs to go well. But a need to add impact talent shouldn't stop the team from having a backup plan - and with Erik Bedard, Chris Capuano, Jason Hammel, Roberto Hernandez, Scott Baker, and every other starting pitcher on the planet already signed... well, Joe Saunders is just about the only worthwhile backup plan left.

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