Mariners to lean on Saunders’ experience

Veteran left-handed starter adds toughness to rotation as replacement for Vargas

Staff writerFebruary 14, 2013 

PEORIA, Ariz. — The Seattle Mariners know what Joe Saunders is and isn’t.

He is a pitcher who 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. He won’t 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 who deviates from that projection.

It’s why the team 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, too, particularly committing to a one year contract.

Having traded their only left-handed starter – Jason Vargas – to the Angels, the Mariners filled that role with another left-hander 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, the first five with the L.A. Angels, Saunders has accumulated a 78-65 record with a 4.15 ERA in 189 career starts.

“I loved the ballpark, loved the feel of the ballpark,” Saunders said.

Of course, Safeco Field is a little different now, which Saunders is 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 will be an upgrade for him.

“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.”

For Saunders’ 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.”

Ryan Divish: 253-597-8483 ryan.divish@ @RyanDivish

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