By Ryan Divish The News Tribune
PEORIA, Ariz. — The Seattle Mariners know what Joe Saunders is and isn’t.
He is a pitcher that will make his start every fifth day for an entire season. He is a pitcher who will give up contact, including hits and home runs.
He isn’t a pitcher with overwhelming velocity or stuff. He isn’t a pitcher who will strike out many hitters.
More than anything, Joe Saunders is a pitcher the Mariners can rely on to give them a legitimate chance to win on the days he starts, and he isn’t a pitcher that deviates from that projection.
It’s why they went and out signed Saunders to a one-year contract.
“He’s a grinder, he’s a competitor, he knows how to get hitters out,” Mariners manager Eric Wedge said. “He pitches smart. I’ve seen him from the time he came up. I’ve watched how he’s evolved. There’s a certain degree of toughness there. And that goes a long way with me.”
Saunders had offers from multiple teams, but decided on the Mariners as the best opportunity.
“I liked where this organization was going,” Saunders said. “I thought they made some good moves, some good trades. I’m familiar with the division and looking to have some fun, try to take another team hopefully to the postseason. We’ll see where it goes. It was just a thing about where do I want to pitch and then look at what’s easiest for your family and all that. It was pretty much an easy decision for me.”
It was a pretty easy decision for the Mariners, particularly since Saunders agreed to a one-year deal.
Having traded their only left-handed starter Jason Vargas — to the Angels for designated hitter/first baseman Kendrys Morales — the Mariners filled in that role with another lefty in Saunders.
“It’s nice to have at least one,” Mariners pitching coach Carl Willis said. “You don’t want to have the entire staff right-handed. Really too, I think another veteran presence in the rotation is just as important, regardless of right or left.”
Saunders has plenty of experience.
In eight big league seasons, Saunders has a 78-65 record with a 4.15 earned run average in 189 career starts. Last season, in 28 combined starts with the Diamondbacks (21) and Orioles (7), he went 9-3 with a 4.07 ERA.
He is also quite familiar with Safeco Field. He made nine starts when he pitched for the Angels, posting a 6-0 record with a 2.13 ERA.
“I loved the ballpark, loved the feel of the ballpark,” Saunders said.
Of course, the ballpark is a little different now, which Saunders is more than aware of.
“I was talking to one of the doctors and he said they moved the fence in a little in left-center,” he said. “So you just have to be careful middle-in to these right-handed hitters. Other than that, just keep pitching your game. I’ve put up some pretty good numbers at Safeco, so hopefully that can continue.”
Saunders spent last season pitching in less than friendly home parks in Phoenix and Baltimore, so even a smaller Safeco can’t be that bad to pitch in.
“You kind of have to adjust to the field wherever you’re pitching,” he said. “I’ve pitched in good ballparks like Seattle and Anaheim and I’ve pitched in bad ballparks like Colorado and Arizona. So it should be fun.”
Saunders knows the book on him is to load up the lineup with right-handers. For his career, right-handers are hitting .286 with an .804 on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS). But he still finds ways to get outs. Lefties hit .243 with a .605 OPS.
“That seems to just work itself out, honestly,” he said. “I don’t focus on that. If it’s an all-righty lineup, you have to pitch to them. You still have to go out and pitch your game. You make minor adjustments, but other than that you just go out and do your thing.”
That type of mindset comes from experience. Saunders understands what makes him successful and tries to do that each start.
“He knows how to pitch,” Willis said. “We talk about being able to throw the fastball to both sides of the plate and everything working off of that, and he can certainly do that. The next thing that starts to factor in is the ability change speeds and throw something offspeed in fastball counts and he can certainly do that. If you can do both of those things you have a chance to win, and he’s experienced at doing those two things.”