So far this season, the Miami Marlins nabbed a trio of marquee free agents while also being heavily connected with eventual Angels’ signees Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson. After a quiet couple of weeks, the team might be in on another deal, albeit this time with a less sexy name: Joe Saunders.
Saunders makes some folks cringe because he was the big-league player the Diamondbacks got in the Dan Haren trade. Baseball fanatics know that Tyler Skaggs — who also was acquired in the deal — is a very well-regarded prospect; but to the casual fan, the trade looked like a Haren-for-Saunders salary dump. Saunders’ performance did little to quell that sentiment: He posted only 1.9 WAR in almost a season-and-a-half before Arizona non-tendered him this fall.
Because of his failure to fulfill the impossible task of filling Haren’s shoes, Saunders’ name probably generates more disdain than it should. After taking a closer look at his numbers, I’m on board if this is a direction the Marlins front office decides to go.
Make no mistake, Saunders is not a special pitcher. Nor is he even a league-average pitcher — at least in terms of stats or stuff. He is, however, consistently durable. Since 2008, he has thrown the 23rd-most innings in the big leagues, eating up 799.1 innings to the tune of 6.6 WAR. Yes, this is the fifth-lowest WAR of any pitcher in the top 50, but there is value in a guy who can throw 200 innings with a FIP- of 110. Jason Marquis has been doing it for more than a decade and he just got another $3 million deal.
This durability is exactly what makes Saunders such a good fit for the Marlins. After Miami’s recent spending spree, it is safe to assume that the Marlins expect to be more competitive than last season’s 72-90 record. This means reliable arms have to be in the rotation. So far, the rotation has Anibal Sanchez, Mark Buehrle, Chris Volstad, the rehabbing Josh Johnson and Ricky “I refuse to pitch up to my FIP” Nolasco. While Sanchez, Buehrle and Nolasco have all been fairly reliable in terms of innings pitched, Volstad set a career high with 184 innings last year and Johnson’s health is still a question.
Thus far in his career, Volstad has averaged just a shade over 5.2 innings per start, while Saunders is above 6 innings per start. These outs add up over a season. Saunders also has averaged 32 starts per season over the past four years, a mark that Volstad has yet to crack at the big-league level.
There also isn’t much difference in their performance over the last two seasons. Volstad has posted a FIP- of 109, while Saunders sits at 114. The extra 20 to 30 innings that Saunders can throw goes a long way toward making up for that gap.
With that said, this decision shouldn’t be made on the basis of Saunders versus Volstad. The truth is that it’s nearly impossible for a major-league club to get through a full season with only five starting pitchers. In reality, both Saunders and Volstad would probably pitch a good chunk of innings for Miami.
Given that the Marlins already have solid talent in their top five — and have already spent a bunch of money — it makes more sense for them to add rotation depth on the cheap with a guy like Saunders, rather than spend big bucks on a marginal upgrade like Hiroki Kuroda or Edwin Jackson. Saunders is a good buy, provided the team can sign him for an AAV in the $5 million to $6 million range. The last thing the Marlins need is to have Josh Johnson go down in the thick of a playoff race without an able replacement on hand. Having both Volstad and Saunders on the roster would give the team the depth it needs — not to mention much more certainty than a guy like Brad Hand would provide.