Joe Saunders was thrashed to the tune of a 5.26 ERA in 183 innings for the Mariners last year. (Paul Sancya/AP)
The Texas Rangers came to terms with left-hander Joe Saunders on a major league contract on Monday, adding necessary depth to a starting rotation that was a concern heading into camp and has become an even greater one in the last few weeks. Saunders, who is guaranteed just $500,000 but could earn $1.5 million plus incentives if he makes the 25-man roster, joins Tommy Hanson as the second pitcher the Rangers have signed since pitchers and catchers reported. Just like Hanson, Saunders posted an ERA higher than 5.25 in the American League West last year, yet stands a very good chance to be a member of the Rangers' Opening Day Rotation.
Rangers manager Ron Washington has already named 2013 American League Cy Young runner-up Yu Darvish his Opening Day starter. However, the only other sure thing in the Rangers' rotation at the moment is 22-year-old sophomore Martin Perez, who made just 20 starts as a rookie last year.
Derek Holland, the Rangers' leader in starts and innings pitched in 2013, is out until after the All-Star break following a freak left knee injury that required microfracture surgery. Matt Harrison, the team's Opening Day starter last year and an All-Star in 2012, made just two starts last year due to a pair of back surgeries and an additional surgery to relieve thoracic outlet syndrome in his non-pitching shoulder, and his return this spring has been slowed by further stiffness in his neck and back. Harrision had a clean MRI two weeks ago and is scheduled to throw off a mound Wednesday for the first time since reporting the discomfort, but given that Opening Day is less than four weeks away, Harrision seems likely to open the season on the disabled list.
The other member of the Rangers' projected rotation coming into camp, 30-year-old righty Alexi Ogando, was hit hard in his Cactus League debut on Friday, has thrown more than 105 innings just once in his four major league seasons, and hit the disabled list three times last year with arm injuries. Given early concerns about Neftali Feliz's mechanics and velocity and Ogando's past success in relief (2.46 ERA, 8.7 K/9 in 113 1/3 innings), it may be tempting for the Rangers to return Ogando to the less strenuous role in which he has had the greater success.
Of course, for that to happen, the Rangers would have to find three more viable starters behind Darvish and Perez, which doesn't appear likely to happen in the short term, even with Saunders in camp. The primary challengers for the final spots in the Texas rotation are 25-year-old sophomore Nick Tepesch, who posted a 4.84 ERA and managed just four quality starts in 17 starts and two relief appearances last year, and 34-year-old Colby Lewis, who is in camp on a minor league contract after missing all of 2013 due to late-2012 surgery to repair a torn flexor tendon in his pitching elbow and a subsequent surgery on his right hip last August. Lewis failed to make it out of the first inning of his spring debut on Monday.
Reaching even further, lefty reliever Robbie Ross has his sights set on returning to starting, which he did almost exclusively in the minors, but Ross hasn't started a game since 2011, hasn't thrown more than 65 innings in a season since, and hasn't thrown three or more innings in a game since June 2012.
Thus Hanson and Saunders, although neither arrived in Surprise, the Rangers' spring training home, with a clear edge on Tepesch. Hanson, once considered a potential ace with the Braves, has seen his potential dashed by mechanical and injury woes that sapped his velocity, eroded his stuff, and saw him dumped on the Angels a year ago for reliever Jordan Walden. In Anaheim, Hanson's physical problems were compounded by death of his stepbrother, resulting in a disastrous season in which he posted a 5.42 ERA in just 73 innings, after which he was non-tendered.
Hanson is still just 27, but the 32-year-old Saunders is actually the better bet to be of value to the Rangers this year. Hanson's poor 2013 was the continuation of a career-long decline, but Saunder's 5.26 ERA and brutal 70 ERA+ for the Mariners in 2013 was more likely a fluke. Prior to last year, Saunders' worst full-season performance had been a 4.47 ERA and 92 ERA+ in 2010, and in his five qualified seasons prior to 2013 combined, he posted a 104 ERA+. Despite a fastball that averages just shy of 90 miles per hour and a strikeout rate well below league average (5.1 K/9 career), Saunders has been a reliably league-average lefty in his career, or had been prior to last year, and his spike in batting average on balls in play last year suggests that he should return to being that in 2014. Even the move to hitter-friendly Arlington isn't of great concern given that he posted a 102 ERA+ in 67 starts for the Diamondbacks, who play in a similarly hitter-friendly home ballpark, from 2010 to 2012.