The Diamondbacks moved to further strengthen their starting rotation in a division that prides itself on pitching by re-signing left-hander Joe Saunders to a one-year, $6 million contract last week.
Saunders' inclusion could give the D'backs arguably the best starting rotation in the NL West as they attempt to defend their division title, a title built with improved pitching in both the rotation and the bullpen.
Ian Kennedy (21-4) and Daniel Hudson (16-13) led the NL in combined victories while establishing career highs with 222 innings apiece, and Saunders had a career-high 212. Right-hander Josh Collmenter also won 10 games despite not joining the rotation until mid-May, giving the D'backs only their second quartet of double-digit winning starters in their history. Right-hander Trevor Cahill, who also logged over 200 innings last year, was obtained earlier in the offseason.
San Francisco, which won the 2010 World Series largely because of its strong pitching, had four double-digit winners last season -- Tim Lincecum, Madison Bumgarner, and Ryan Vogelsong (13 victories apiece) and Matt Cain (12). The Los Angeles Dodgers also had four 10-game winners, including NL Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw, but lost free agent Hiroki Kuroda to the New York Yankees over the winter.
Saunders, 12-13 with a 3.69 ERA in his first full season in the National League last year, gives the D'backs one left-hander in the rotation and also allows them to not rush their prize minor league prospects. Left-hander Tyler Skaggs, 21, and right-hander Trevor Bauer, 21, are considered the top prospects in a deep minor league group that also includes Patrick Corbin and Charles Brewer. The D'backs tentatively had penciled in left-hander Wade Miley into the final rotation spot entering spring training after he made seven starts down the stretch last year. The added depth to the rotation lessens the concerns of possible injuries to Arizona's young, overworked starters.
Saunders, expected to slot into the rotation behind Cahill and in front of Collmenter, recovered from a 0-5 start to regain his form in 2011. He made 12 straight appearances of at least six innings, the second-longest streak on the team to Hudson's 13. Saunders had 20 quality starts, tied for 17th in the NL and third on the D'backs behind Kennedy (24) and Hudson (21). His ERA and ratio of hits/walks per innings were the second-lowest of his career in his first full season in the NL.
The D'backs elected not to offer Saunders salary arbitration at the early December deadline, but did not close the door on his return. They were also unwilling to offer him the multi-year deal he sought, but when Saunders found no takers on the free agent market, he returned at a slight raise from the $5.25 million he made in 2011. He likely would have made at least $8 million had the D'backs offered arbitration and he accepted.
--INF/OF Rusty Ryal, who spent 2011 with the Yomiuri Giants of the Japanese Pacific League, will be back with the D'backs this season after signing a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training. Ryal, the D'backs' 14th round pick in the 2005 draft, spent parts of 2009-10 with the parent team. He hit .261 with three homers in 2010 and may be best known for a line drive that struck Dodgers RHP Hiroki Kuroda in the head in 2009 and forced him onto the disabled list. Ryal was released by Yomiuri on October 1.
--LHP Joe Saunders, who appeared unlikely to return when the D'backs did not offer him salary arbitration in early December, will be the only left-hander in rotation after agreeing to a one-year, $6 million contract on January 17. Saunders is expected to fill the #4 spot in the rotation. He was one of four double-digit winners for the D'backs last season, the second time in team history that four pitchers have reached that plateau in the same season. Saunders lives in the Phoenix area and recently bought a new home there.
--The D'backs have re-signed six free agents who made valuable contributions to their 2011 NL West title -- Saunders, 2B Aaron Hill, IF/OF Willie Bloomquist, C Henry Blanco, 1B Lyle Overbay and SS John McDonald. The addition of both Bloomquist and McDonald gives the D'backs protection in case SS Stephen Drew (fractured right ankle) is not ready for the start of spring training.
--The D'backs paid tribute to their corporate sponsors at an awards ceremony January 19 believed to be the first of its kind in the industry. D'backs president/CEO Derrick Hall -- think Billy Crystal at the Academy Awards ceremony -- was the host and emcee of the event, held at a local resort and designed to have a Hollywood feel. The D'backs presented award to corporate sponsors in eight categories.
--RHP Trevor Cahill has increased his innings load in each of his three major league seasons, all with Oakland. He had a career-high 207 2/3 with Oakland in 2011 after logging 178 2/3 innings in his rookie season of 2009 and 196 2/3 innings in 2010, when he set career highs in victories (18), ERA (2.97) and ratio of hits and walks per nine innings (1.11).
DIAMOND STAT:6 -- Free agents off the 2011 title team who re-signed with the D'backs this year, with LHP Joe Saunders being the sixth.
QUOTABLE: "We still had interest, but at the right price." -- General manager Kevin Towers on re-acquiring LHP Joe Saunders for $6 million. Saunders likely would have made at least $8 million in arbitration had the D'backs offered that option.
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