The news: As noted in this morning's Frosty Mug, the Mariners have declined starting pitcher Joe Saunder's contract option for 2014. If exercised, the option would have paid Saunders $8 million in 2014. Instead, he received a $900,000 buyout.
2013 was the worst season of Saunders' career, as he made 32 starts for Seattle and posted a 5.26 ERA over 183 innings. His typically low strikeout rate remained low at 5.3 per nine innings, and his walk rate bubbled up a bit to 3.0 per nine, up from 2.0 in 2012.
Saunders is 32 and the lefty has thrown 1344.1 innings over nine MLB seasons, but his velocity numbers would suggest age and wear is not the issue here. His fastball sat slightly below 90 in 2013, which is roughly where it's been every year since 2009. His mix of pitches did change a bit, though, as he nearly abandoned his four-seam fastball and greatly increased usage of his slider. None of his pitches fared particularly well in 2013, but his slider was pretty bad at -1.82 runs per 100.
Many of the usual luck measures would suggest that Saunders pitched better than his numbers would indicate in 2013. Consider these comparisons between this season and his career numbers:
|Opponent batting average on balls in play||.332||.297|
|Ground ball percentage||51.2%||46%|
|Percentage of fly balls becoming home runs||14.5%||11%|
|Line drive percentage||21.7%||19.4%|
To sum up: Saunders is getting hit a little harder than he was in his best seasons, but he's also getting plenty of ground balls that could be turned into outs. FIP suggests he was roughly the same pitcher in 2013 as he was in 2012, and was actually better than his performances in 2005-11.
Finally, Saunders might be an example of the difference in talent between the American and National Leagues. He was an AL pitcher from 2005-10 and again from the middle of 2012-13 and posted a 4.45 ERA in that league. He pitched in the NL as a Diamondback from 2010-12 and had a 3.96 ERA over that time with roughly similar peripherals.
Could he help this team? I'll say maybe. Saunders doesn't carry a high upside: the best one can probably expect from him at this point is a season where he eats 180-200 innings with an ERA around the league average. It's hard to justify cracking open piggy banks to pay for that.
With that said, I'm not sure the five man rotation the Brewers project to send forward right now can provide enough innings to get the team through a full season. Saunders would also be the only lefty among the 2014 team's starting options.
What do I think the Brewers should do? There's a tough balance here between getting needed parts and avoiding overpaying for them. I'd make a one-year offer to Saunders, but I'd be reluctant to go two years. All other things being equal, at that price there's a strong chance he'd rather go somewhere else.