The signing of Trevor Bauer earlier this week drops another piece into place, of the jigsaw puzzle that is the Arizona Diamondbacks' future. While he will be starting off in A-ball, the expectation is that he'll be competing for a starting job next spring. The question is, does this help to make Joe Saunders superfluous to needs? Our current #3 will be entering his final year of arbitration, so will be due a significant pay-hike if Arizona are to retain his services for 2012. Should he get it, or is there someone younger, cheaper and better coming up?
Firstly, let's look at what Saunders will be due to receive. It will be his third and final year of arbitration, having earned $5.25 million in 2011 with Arizona. A similar player to use as a yardstick would be the Astros' Wandy Rodriguez. Another left-handed starter like Saunders, he had his second-year of arbitration in 2010 and earned $5 million. He has a good 2010, with a 3.60 ERA that's very close to Joe's current number (3.63), and ended up signing an extension that bought out the last year of arbitration for $7 million. So it seems reasonable to think Saunders would be due around $7.5 million in 2012.
Is the Colonel worth that? It really depends where you look, for there is a sharp dichotomy between his WAR numbers, as expressed by baseball-reference.com and fangraphs.com. The former currently puts him on pace for 2.7 bWAR in 2011. That would work out to a per-season average, since Saunders became a full-time starter, of 2.25 bWAR. Generally, one WAR is seen as being worth about $4-4.5 million, so either of those previous numbers, if repeated in 2012, would seem to make Saunders good value for money next year.
Fangraphs and fWAR, on the other hand, are less impressed. They have Saunders down at a projection of 0.8 fWAR for this season, and a four-year average of 1.65 fWAR. The latter, higher number would put Saunders for $7m at about break-even: to put 0.8 fWAR in context, Rodrigo Lopez in 2010 was worth 0.6 fWAR. Obviously, that's not worth anywhere near as much. But why do the two systems put such different values on Saunders and his results from this season?
Basically, fangraphs' value is based on FIP, which is generated purely on the peripheral stats, in order to take defense out of the picture. So, it just uses the pitcher's rate of strikeouts, walks and home-runs, as the only things which a hitter directly controls. The problem is, Saunders doesn't strike out many batters - only five per nine innings, compared to league average of 7.2. Add in a walk-rate that's exactly at average (3.2) and a home-run rate that's also significantly worse (1.3 vs. 0.9), and you can see why FIP [as well as its human incarnation, Dan S. :-)] hates Saunders so much this season.
However, FIP has hated Saunders ever year he has been a full-time starter, and Joe, untroubled by such issues, has posted a perfectly-decent ERA+ of 105 over that time. Part of whether you think Saunders is worth re-signing, is whether he can continue to defy those FIPpy expectations of mediocrity that, over his career, have come in almost half a run higher than actuality. It is possible. Since 2007, those who have out-performed FIP by more than 0.50 include Tim Hudson (0.53), Johan Santana (0.68) and Trevor Cahill (0.79). On the other hand, they also include Armando Galarraga (0.65), and we all know how that worked out...
Equally as key is the question of, if we don't sign Saunders, who do we have in the rotation? Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson are a given, and Josh Collmenter is making a credible case to be at the back end [with the usual caveat about strong early performances from debutants not necessarily translating to full seasons]. So. if we are not to 'need' Saunders, that leaves us with two spots to fill. While there are candidates to do so, none of them are tested at the major-league level. I don't want to steal Dan's thunder [he'll be discussing the 2012 roster a bit more over the weekend], but it is worth mentioning the two top candidates.
Jarrod Parker. He's still making his way back from Tommy John surgery, and struggled initially: in his first four starts, he had a 9.00 ERA, walking 12 in 17 innings. However, the velocity was there, and he has gradually found his way back. In his five July starts - the sixth should be tonight - he has a 1.38 ERA, with a 1.000 WHIP and 21 K's in 28 innings. A recent piece in the Republic was glowing, reporting Parker has hit 100 mph, and also added a 94 mph sinker. Throw in a change-up now described by VP of scouting and player development Jerry Dipoto as a "plus to plus-plus pitch," and we may see him once rosters expand in September.
Trevor Bauer. Now we've got our #3 pick drafted, there's a possibility he might also be seen in September, though it's more likely he will work out of the bullpen. That's because the team wants to limit his workload to 30-40 innings the rest of the way, having thrown 136.2 innings for UCLA already. Kevin Towers seemed optimistic Bauer would be capable of competing come next year. "I think he's got the right head and the rubber arm. I think he can handle the workload, handle the pressure, but we'll find out in the spring."
However, the team will not be able to see how the 2012 pre-season pans out before deciding what to do with Saunders. Typically, teams have to decide by mid-December whether or not to tender a contract to arbitration-eligible players like Saunders. Will the team have seen enough of Bauer and Parker by that point to come to an informed decision? Will they like what they see? It seems more likely to me that the team will hold on to Saunders, as a "known quantity," to provide us with a projected opening day rotation of Kennedy, Hudson, Saunders, Collmenter, and Parker or Bauer.
That seems more realistic to me. Parker is more likely; throwing a pitcher with barely three months experience of pro-baseball into the majors would be largely unprecedented for Arizona. Even an incandescent #1 overall pick like Justin Upton had close to a thousand PA's before his debut. Now, Bauer is obviously different, being a) a pitcher, and b) out of college. But there's no rush. Caution suggests they let Parker bed down and Collmenter prove his credentials at the start of 2012. Then, if Bauer is tearing things up, we can tradie Saunders and making room for Jack. His current performance, if maintained, would make Joe a credible trade-chip.
Or alternatively, we can keep them both, and await the inevitable need for pitcher #6, which is bound to arise in the 2012 season at some point. As we've seen this year, you can never have too much starting pitching, which is, to my mind, another reason to re-sign Saunders. While there might be a legitimate question-mark over whether he can sustain his current form, $7 million doesn't get you very much on the pitching free-agent market. [Last year, that's what Javier Vasquez got, and he has a 5.10 ERA with the Marlins to date] Arizona are not exactly heavily committed in 2012, so money isn't an issue; again, Dan will have more on that over the weekend.
Personally, I do favor retaining Saunders. Sure, Parker and Bauer could give us a fearsome rotation alongside Kennedy and Hudson - but the key word in that sentence is "could." You don;t give away your reliable, if occasionally clunky, station-wagon just because you entered a drawing for a luxury sports-car. You wait until you actually win it, and that's the approach Arizona should take. All going well, 2012 could be the beginning of a long streak of contention for the Diamondbacks, but if so, it will be built upon a solid, deep rotation.