Yesterday a rumor appeared that the Mariners were interested in bringing back Joe Saunders if he was willing to accept a bullpen role, which is simultaneously disgusting but not entirely a terrible thought. Saunders has been a pretty atrocious starting pitcher for a number of years, witnessed first hand by the Mariners in 2013, and to this date he remains one of the least fun pitchers to watch that the M's have trotted out in the Zduriencik era.
Today, it appears he's back with the Mariners.
No official word from #Mariners, but new locker being set up in clubhouse for Joe Saunders. Expecting he's agreed to Minor League deal.— Greg Johns (@GregJohnsMLB) February 20, 2015
Before we move on to whether this is a smart decision or not, let's get these emotions out of the way first. Because even though they're irrational, they're still emotions and they deserve to be honored. I have a bad taste in my mouth about Joe Saunders being in this locker room. He represents an era of Seattle baseball that has been left in the past, stop gaps that didn't really work out, prospects that tanked, late summers that didn't matter. A soft-tossing lefty who ate innings, but those innings were full of marshmallows and duck fat fries. His xFIP was relatively solid that year at 4.23, but it didn't stop him from getting totally shelled, especially on the road and by right-handed hitters. Last offseason, there was a point in which Logan suggested Saunders might actually be a good value on a super cheap deal as the Mariners searched for rotation depth, pre-Elias breakout. I couldn't let my occasionally robot brain stop me from recoiling with disgust.
It's ok to have that initial reaction, because it's probably the same one that I had. Joe Saunders? Gross. Even at a minor league deal, of which there is currently no cost or risk other than feeding him and giving him a hotel room, he doesn't feel like somebody who can do anything good, especially after floating around in the minors last year, making starts for four different teams and getting shelled in every single one of them.
So let's consider some facts, cutting the emotions out of it.
1) Joe Saunders almost certainly will not start any games for the Mariners this year. They do have some rotation depth and Saunders has pretty much proven that he's just about cooked in that role.
2) Joe Saunders has never really been a reliever before. Saunders made some scattered appearances out of the bullpen last year, but it's nowhere near enough to make any conclusions about his ability to handle that role.
3) Joe Saunders is historically very good at getting lefties out, and could possibly be quite good at it if asked to do it almost exclusively. For his career, Saunders has held lefties to a .617 OPS, and even while he was getting shelled all over the place for the 2013 Mariners, he held them to a .566 OPS. Even when you toss in his absolutely brutal 2014, the line only leaks up to a .578 OPS.
So Saunders is cooked as a starter, but might actually be a legitimate candidate to be a LOOGY, if he can handle transitioning into that role, which is far from a lock. The Mariners have a lot of other candidates for that role, including Rule 5 pick David Rollins, Rafael Perez, and Lucas Luetge. Joe Beimel is still a free agent, and while it's clear they're still apart on contract negotiations, you can't ever rule him out from returning until he signs somewhere else. It's likely that at most, only one of these players is going to break camp, which means that Saunders is a long shot at best now that he's the fourth member of that crew.
If you want to root against Saunders making the team, that's fine and totally understandable. I'm not in love with the idea of seeing his face on this best-team-in-forever-on-paper Mariners either. But on the other hand, the Mariners are being creative and trying to fill holes with solutions a bit outside the box. It started with making a second baseman a backup outfielder and first baseman, and now it comes to making a cooked starter into a lefty specialist. Who knows. If it doesn't work, you've wasted nothing but time and the baseball equivalent of craft services. If it does work, the Mariners are better and we'll all just have to wrap our heads around Joe Saunders being throwing baseballs and being good at it.