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If Tigers Need A Fifth Starter, Joe Saunders Could Be An Attractive Option

Saunders went 12-13 with a 3.69 ERA for the Diamondbacks last season. He's pitched 200 innings each of the past two seasons, providing a veteran innings-eater for any interested team.

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As a baseball fan, it's natural during the offseason to look at available players and wonder where they fit. When I was blogging full-time about the Detroit Tigers at Bless You Boys, it became something of a weekly habit.

For the sake of discussion, I'd throw a player out there and ask readers whether or not a certain player was a good idea. Of course, it was also to satisfy my own curiosity. Could that player help the Tigers?

With Monday's non-tender deadline, several players were let go by their teams and free to sign with any other club. For a team like the Tigers that hasn't made any headline moves this offseason — no offense to Gerald Laird and Ramon Santiago — other than upgrade its middle relief, the list of non-tendered players could provide Detroit a chance to fill some holes. For instance, the back end of the starting rotation.

The Arizona Diamondbacks cut loose left-hander Joe Saunders, and he might be a pitcher who could help the Tigers. However, there haven't been any indications that Detroit has shown interest in Saunders. (The Red Sox are reportedly looking at him.)

That might be because of the salary Saunders, 30, was set to earn through arbitration, which projections had around $7-8 million. I'm guessing that's more than the Tigers would've preferred to pay, considering they paid Brad Penny $3 million for last season. Detroit could set its price with Saunders now that he's a free agent. The question is whether or not Saunders would seek a multi-year contract, which could be a deal-breaker for the Tigers.

But if not, would Saunders be worth pursuing? He has pitched at least 31 starts in each of the last four seasons. During the last two years, he's exceeded 200 innings. That's exactly the sort of durability the Tigers would like out of a fifth starter. 

He also has experience pitching in the American League, having played four-and-a-half seasons with the Los Angeles Angels and compiling a record of 54-32. Most would point out, however, that those numbers are deceiving. Saunders benefited greatly from pitching in Angels Stadium, one of the most pitcher-friendly ballparks in MLB.

Saunders is an extremely hittable pitcher. He gives up a bunch of hits. Look at his 2011 season. In 212 innings pitched, he allowed 210 hits. That's a concern. Saunders' ERA was 3.69 last season, which looks pretty good. But his FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) numbers were 4.78, which indicates that he got some help from a strong D-Backs defense behind him.

That's important for a ground ball pitcher like Saunders. And it might hint that his numbers wouldn't look as good with an inferior Tigers infield defense behind him. 

But all things considered, Saunders would be worth a look from the Tigers. Having a question mark at the back end of the rotation can tax a pitching staff throughout the season. Pitchers could go up and down from the minors. And on at least one night a week, a bullpen could be tapped out, forcing other pitchers in the rotation to pitch longer in subsequent starts. A durable pitcher like Saunders, who makes all of his starts and pitches deep into ballgames could eliminate such headaches. 

Additionally, a slower-throwing lefty like Saunders could provide a change of pace for opposing batters, which is something the Tigers previously preferred in their rotation. Jim Leyland liked the idea of following a flamethrower like Justin Verlander up with a soft-tosser such as Kenny Rogers or Mike Maroth to keep lineups off-balance. 

Whether they choose to admit it or not, the Tigers have shown interest in some big-ticket pitchers that would've provided a major boost to their starting staff. But Mark Buehrle signed a four-year, $58 million deal with the Miami Marlins that was far more than Detroit wanted to pay. And as of right now, Billy Beane is asking for more in return for Gio Gonzalez than Dave Dombrowski is willing to exchange

So adding a big name or young veteran with major upside to the starting rotation probably isn't going to happen, although there's still plenty of offseason left for that to change. Instead, it appears that Dombrowski is either going to sit back and let the market come to him or comb the bargain bin for a lower-tier veteran that can give the rotation some innings and possibly keep a seat warm for a younger pitcher like Duane Below, Adam Wilk, or even Jacob Turner

Waiting out the market has worked nicely for the Tigers before. That's how they got Pudge Rodriguez, Magglio Ordonez and Johnny Damon. Bringing in a lower-priced veteran pitcher has had moderate success too. Would Rogers fit in that category? That worked out very well. Penny? Maybe not as much.

Which side of the equation Saunders falls on could determine whether or not the Tigers pursue him.