Cubs and Free Agent Pitchers: Joe Saunders

Among the many ills of the 2011 Chicago Cubs was the lack of quality starting pitching. Short outings ate up the bullpen and left the Cubs trying to dig from a hole with an anemic offense. So how does this get better in 2012?

After the Cubs made their singular trade of the winter meetings, swapping Tyler Colvin and DJ LeMahieu for Ian Stewart, the message from the front office was that the next step was to look at non-tendered players and other free agents.

The Japanese star Yu Darvish is supposedly one chance the Cubs have to shore up a rotation that was tied for last in average Game Score, and had less quality starts than every staff but Colorado.

The posting process is a crap shoot though, and while Theo Epstein has some history with it, you get one shot to throw what amounts to $100 million total at the player. That seems more like a move from the old Cubs regime rather than the new Cubs. Chances are that the Cubs are not going to be the team that is chosen by the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters (and the rumors are that Toronto has already sealed this up).

If the season started today, the Cubs would throw out a rotation that looks very similar to last season. Matt Garza, Ryan Dempster and Carlos Zambrano would lead out, with Randy Wells returning in the No. 4 spot. Andrew Cashner should return from his arm troubles, and be in contention for the fifth spot if the Cubs don't make a move, although rumor has it that a return to the bullpen -- probably permanently -- is in order.

With starting pitching depth a concern, the team should be looking at realistic choices on the market. While Tim Wakefield has been rumored to be of interest, you don't need stats breakdown why a 45-year-old knuckleballer shouldn't be (Neither should his favorite catcher Jason Varitek).

Instead, today begins a series of articles looking at the potential choices the Cubs have for the rotation.

To begin, Joe Saunders.

Joe Saunders
2011 Age: 30
Team: Arizona Diamondbacks
2011: 212 IP, 12-13, 3.69 ERA, 1.307 WHIP

At first glance, Joe Saunders seems to be a nice fit for Chicago. He would provide a lefty in the rotation which at least should cause the opposing manager to think about his lineup, even though research shows that a mix of lefties and righties in the rotation doesn't really matter.

The biggest thing with Saunders is that he eats innings. Even if the Cubs aren't in contention, he will suck up close to 200 innings a year and he has stayed durable through the last four season.

His career ERA of 4.16 came mostly in the American League and no matter where he has been, he has been just better than league average, providing teams with a solid fourth or fifth starter in the rotation.

But before the checkbook comes out, here is why Saunders probably isn't the best bet for the Cubs.

To start, Saunders has a career xFIP of 4.52. For those unfamiliar with the stat, xFIP measures fielding-independent pitching. It looks at the pitcher's walks, strikeouts and fly ball rates and provides an estimate of what that pitcher's ERA should be if the fielding behind him was decent. xFIP sets the home run rate of a pitcher to be 10 percent of his fly ball rate, standardizing it for the entire league.

While Saunders has usually outperformed his xFIP, he has done it in the best of circumstances. His career BABIP against is .289 which is well below the major league average thanks to pitching in Anaheim. He also got a boost in hitter-friendly Arizona thanks to an above average defense behind him.

In other words, Saunders probably isn't as good on just pure talent as his numbers so far in his career would suggest. He has been in the right place at all the right times.

If Saunders were to come to the Cubs, he immediately inherits the worst defense in the National League behind him, in a park that is very hitter friendly. The Cubs had the worst defensive BABIP in the National League last season, and while the departures of Aramis Ramirez and Kosuke Fukudome should help that number a tad, this won't be a case of going from worst to first.

For his career, Saunders is about average in terms of his ground ball-to-fly ball ratio, with about 45.5 percent of his balls in play ending up on the ground. That is just about what Ryan Dempster's numbers are.

This is both a blessing and a curse for pitchers on the Cubs. As we noted, the Cubs had one of the worst defenses in the league last season. But it also means that Saunders will do a good job avoiding the jet stream that can blow anything hit in the air in the right conditions out onto Waveland.

The number of line drives that Saunders surrenders has also been increasing over the last few years. More line drives means more hits. It isn't a concern yet, but it is something to watch.

Saunders boasts 1.75 career strikeout-to-walk ratio, and while he doesn't walk many, he isn't going to blow people away either. His fastball sits around 90 mph, and he works more on placement than power. His slider provides a decent change of pace along with a changeup that is about 82 mph.

That can work when you have a great defense behind you to help you out. The Cubs don't have that luxury. Saunders would need to be even more careful about placement for the Cubs to help him.

The one positive note comes when you take Saunders performance at Chase field and overlay it on Wrigley.

As you can see in the image, there is no uptick in number of home runs (dark blue dots) allowed necessarily (this does not take into account wind, or wall height, only distance the ball traveled).

In fact, some home runs down the left field line look as if they would stay in the park at Wrigley Field, assuming the wind didn't take them out. Saunders hasn't pitched enough at Wrigley in his career to make any judgments from the small sample size (just two games and 8-2/3 innings), so it is an unknown how the park might truly affect him.


In total though, Saunders looks like an iffy bet. All signs point to his 1.5 average WAR, dropping a tad in Chicago, just thanks to the wind and the defense behind him.

It is still possible that Saunders could continue to defy the odds and outperform his stats, and if the Cubs want to take a shot on a short-term deal, it might be worth it.

Recommended: Maybe
Contract offer: 2 years, $15 million.
Reasoning: Saunders won't blow anyone away in Chicago, but having a steady arm in the rotation that eats innings nothing to sneeze at. At worst, Saunders is average for two years and moves on when someone in the system is ready to take his place. At best, the Cubs get an above average left-handed starter who helps them continue to improve in a down division.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Benjamin Miraski published on December 17, 2011 8:07 PM.

Brewers get a steal with Aramis Ramirez was the previous entry in this blog.

Cubs ship Sean Marshall to Cincinnati for Travis Wood is the next entry in this blog.

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