Saunders brings durability to Rangers' rotation
Left-hander feels he's on track, will make Cactus League debut in near future
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Hoping to stabilize some of the uncertainty surrounding the back end of the Rangers' rotation this spring, the club added another veteran arm Wednesday to its pool of starting pitcher candidates as Texas announced the signing of free-agent left-hander Joe Saunders to a one-year Major League contract.
"He's a gamer," manager Ron Washington said. "He'll be a guy that keeps us in the ballgame."
The move comes nearly three weeks after the Rangers inked right-hander Tommy Hanson to a similar deal, which guarantees a base salary plus bonuses if he makes the team. CBS Sports reported that Saunders will make $500,000 initially and $1.5 million should he break camp with the Rangers.
Competing to fill out the rotation behind Yu Darvish, Martin Perez and Alexi Ogando, Saunders joins Hanson, Colby Lewis, Robbie Ross and Nick Tepesch as contenders for the remaining two spots. Setup man Tanner Scheppers has been mentioned as another option, but he's more likely to stay in the bullpen. The wide-open competition is a result of injuries to Derek Holland, who will miss multiple months of the season, and Matt Harrison, who isn't expected to be ready until at least mid-April.
"I think we're in a good spot now with our depth," general manager Jon Daniels said. "We have legitimately seven, eight or nine Major League candidates depending on what we want to do with Robbie and Tanner. We'll let it all play out, but I'm confident we're going to put together a championship-caliber rotation out of this group -- not to mention when Matt and Derek coming back."
Although he's beginning his Spring Training a few weeks after his new teammates, Saunders said he feels his arm is where it normally would be at this point of camp. Saunders guessed he has thrown 14 or 15 bullpen sessions already, and on Tuesday he participated in a batting practice session for the Rangers, throwing to Minor Leaguers in Surprise.
"I'm right on track," said Saunders, who will pitch in "B" game Friday. "Everything has gone really well and hopefully I'll get out in a game here soon."
A veteran of nine Major League seasons, Saunders is coming off the worst statistical year of his career. In 32 starts for the Mariners, the 32-year-old went 11-16 with a 5.26 ERA over 183 innings. According to him, however, the numbers don't tell the whole story.
"It was a tough year all around. I had some bad luck. It just seemed like they found a lot of holes," Saunders said. "Just one of those years where it was a struggle. It was definitely a learning experience. You learn a lot about yourself and what it takes to get over that hump."
What made Saunders an attractive piece for the Rangers is his long history of durability. Since 2008, the southpaw has made at least 28 starts every season.
"A lot of the guys that are still out there at this time of year are hurt or they're coming off injuries. With Joe, he's never really had injuries," Daniels said. "He makes every one of his starts, and that's what we needed right now. We needed some stabilizing. He had a down year last year, but I think he's motivated."
With seven years' experience in the American League West, Saunders is certainly familiar with the Rangers. In eight career starts at Globe Life Park, though, he is just 1-7 with an 8.58 ERA.
"I love the ballpark, it's a great ballpark," said Saunders, who defeated the Rangers as a member of the Orioles in the 2012 AL Wild Card game. "I think [the numbers] were more a factor of the lineup than ballpark. I faced that lineup a lot over the past years, so it's nice to get on the good side of things now."
The Rangers will have Saunders throw another batting practice session in the coming days, and then the club expects him to make his Cactus League debut shortly after. Washington said he wants to see Saunders earn his spot in the rotation, a challenge the lefty appears up for.
"I consider myself a guy that's going to go out there and give it a 150 percent all the time, regardless of what I have that day," Saunders said. "I'm going to give the team a chance to win. I pride myself in that."
Tyler Emerick is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.