Joe Saunders: A Fit for the New-Look Marlins?

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.

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18 Responses to “Joe Saunders: A Fit for the New-Look Marlins?”

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  1. Husker says:

    Very thoughtful article. You’ve convinced me.

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  2. Cody says:

    As much as this move would make sense for the Marlins, I cannot get past the fact that he is Joe Saunders.

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    • I had the exact same initial reaction. I believe the first word out of my mouth was ewe when I read the rumour.

      One thing I wish I had mentioned in the article is that the Marlins got 128 starts from 4 of their 5 starters last year. I don’t have any numbers in front of me but I feel like that is pretty darn good. Their lack of depth in the rotation wasn’t really an issue because everyone except Johnson was healthy.

      Even still, after Johnson went down, they got -1.1 WAR from the guys that replaced him. They didn’t even have a replacement level 6th starter. The 2 win difference between those guys and Saunders didn’t matter because it was a last place ball club. But you get into 85+ win territory and those two wins can be the difference between October baseball and sitting on the couch, not to mention a nice boost on the win-revenue curve.

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  3. James Lewis says:

    “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.”

    Would the casual fan really have that sentiment reinforced by advanced metrics like WAR?

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  4. Dude says:

    Who’s Hideki Kuroda?

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  5. Jonny's Bananas says:

    Nice article. There seems to be a chance that Volstad won’t even be with the team this year (he was the only rotation pitcher on the man roster that wasn’t invited to the team’s opening ceremony at the new stadium last month), but what you lay out here makes a great case for keeping him and another average 4th/5th starter around.

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    • I did not know that about the opening ceremony. Definitely not a good sign for Volstad. But, I think you are asking for trouble going into a season in which you expect to be a contender with only five guys you trust to handle a rotation spot.

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  6. DD says:

    You contradict yourself here:
    Jason Marquis has been doing it for more than a decade and he just got another $3 million deal.

    By saying this:
    Saunders is a good buy, provided the team can sign him for an AAV in the $5 million to $6 million range.

    Saunders asked the D-backs for 3 yrs/$27 mil and they didn’t make another offer after initially offering around 2-$12 mil. Until his asking price drops significantly, they won’t get a good buy on him. Marquis had signed a 2-$15 mil deal that he couldn’t earn in DC. Marquis also is consistently about 5-10% better on GB% in his career. I agree this rotation needs depth, but what is so wrong with Jackson, who can be had at a slightly higher rate, has a ton more upside, and is a legit #3 starter? He would be more than a “marginal upgrade” for sure.

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    • RE: Marquis – He is later in his career so $3M is fair. When he was Saunders age he was getting paid a lot more than that.

      I agree that Jackson is a better option that any of the Marlins internal options or Saunders. All I’m saying is if everything breaks perfectly and everyone is healthy, he is replacing Volstad’s 1-1.5 WAR with say 3 WAR. I’d rather not pay Jackson $10M AAV for a 1.5 WAR boost.

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  7. William says:

    Saunders is a disaster. You ignore the fact that Volstad’s xFip- was 94 while Saunders’ was 114. I don’t really see the logic behind spending 6 million for a guy who is 20% worse than the guy he would replace. Wade LeBlanc (110 xFip-)is even better than Saunders, and he currently projects as the 6th starter for a fraction of the cost that Saunders would command

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    • Volstad has almost 600 big league innings of a much higher xFIP than FIP. He has not show an ability to keep the ball in the yard. It is a bit presumptuous to say that he will be better than Saunders just because of xFIP.

      And you are looking at one year of 79.2 innings for LeBlanc. He has negative career WAR pitching in Petco. At 27 he probably isn’t going to get much better. Last season was the first time since A ball that he has posted a FIP below 4.

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  8. Rideallnide says:

    there is no need to spend 5 million per yer on a multi year deal for a 6th starter. he is no better than volstad, and not much better than leblanc hand or sanabia. would be a waste of money.

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    • That’s where the injuries come in. You can’t go into a season with 5 starters.

      I covered Leblanc above. Sanabia has never started more than 19 games in a season so cannot be counted on for a full season. Hand will only be 22 and was not good in his starts last season.

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  9. Conner says:

    Rumor has it that they didn’t invite Volstad because the FO thought that would be a wake up call for Volstad to play better.

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  10. Nice pick up for the Marlins. He’ll eat up innings with some effectiveness. A nice addition as long as he remains in the NL.

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  11. AA says:

    Saunders isn’t a star, but he isn’t as bad as often made out to be here. He’s a FIP-outperformer, likely because his stuff is good enough to induce the weak contact that isn’t measured well by FIP. Indeed, I think its his tendency to want to “pitch to contact” that has hurt his FIP, and real-world performance, over the years.

    That said, he’s clearly a left-handed innings eater who is better than FIP makes him out to be and who is still young enough to continue such performance for 3-5 years. That’s worth $6m to a team like the Marlins.

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