Joe Saunders Returns to Arizona

If there were still questions about whether the Arizona Diamondbacks were serious about repeating as NL West champions, those questions have now been answered. Veteran southpaw Joe Saunders agreed to a one-year, $6 million contract not long after it seemed that the D-backs would be content to fill the fifth spot in their rotation internally.

Joe Saunders is back with the Diamondbacks, who non-tendered him in December. Saunders tested the free agent market, then returned to Arizona on a one-year, $6 million deal. He went 12-13 with a 3.69 ERA in 33 starts last year, easily the 30-year old's most effective season since 2008.

"Joe was an integral part of our success last season and will help stabilize the rotation next season," said D-backs GM Kevin Towers. "We're confident his veteran leadership, familiarity in the clubhouse and understanding of the culture we've built will help us continue working towards a championship."  

The Diamondbacks had made no secret that they wanted to add an inexpensive veteran to the back end of their starting rotation, and expressed interest in free agent right-hander Bartolo Colon. The 38-year-old veteran landed in Oakland with a one year, $2 million deal.  Earlier in the winter, Arizona offered Hiroki Kuroda a one year deal worth $13 million, but after they were rebuffed, they spend money earmarked for Kuroda on left fielder Jason Kubel.  Kuroda eventually signed with the Yankees for only $10 million, with New York's large demographic of Japanese-Americans a possible factor in Kuroda's decision.

It is equally possible that Kuroda, Saunders, and other mid-tier free agent pitchers have found the market much softer for their services than it had been for top-tier free agent pitchers such as C.J. Wilson and Mark Buehrle.  While teams are still willing to pay top dollar for elite talents, they are increasingly reluctant to shell out millions to players who represent only a modest performance upgrade over a cost-controlled rookie from within their farm system.

Saunders has never been a top pitcher, but he does represent a significant upgrade over Wade Miley, Tyler Skaggs, Trevor Bauer, or whichever rookies might have filled the fifth starter's role had Saunders not signed.  Among all left-handed pitchers since 2008, Saunders ranks first with 106 grounded-into-double-plays induced, tied for fourth with 54 wins, tied for fifth with 128 starts, seventh with 799.1 innings, 10th with a 4.85 run support average, tied for 12th with a .551 winning percentage, 15th with a 1.35 WHIP, and 17th with a 4.03 ERA

Perhaps more importantly, the young pitching prospects that Arizona might have used to begin the season as their #5 starter won't be forced to have taxing workloads at the major league level.  This is particularly important with Arizona having expectations to play this October.  With an experienced five-man rotation set, any of their rookie options can enjoy some extra seasoning in the minors, have extra evaluation time to determine which one is most ready for the majors, and then perhaps step in mid-season for an injury to one of the front five.

There's no question that the Diamondbacks are a far deeper team entering 2012 than they were entering 2011, which is important, as they cannot expect their starting pitching to be as unusually healthy as it was last season.

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