Joe Saunders Road to Return?

Shortly after the Arizona Diamondbacks defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers at Chase Field I was in the car traveling north on the 101 to Salt River Fields. It felt like autopilot as I made the trek I did almost daily during Spring Training. One look at the thermometer in the rear view mirror and seeing 109 degrees was a reminder that this was no Cactus League game.

On a minor league field adjacent to the Diamondbacks Spring Training clubhouse was tonight’s edition of the Arizona Summer League featuring minor league players for the Arizona Diamondbacks versus the Cleveland Indians. The Arizona Summer League is a minor league affiliate that is made up predominantly of players just starting their careers. It is one level below Short Season A ball which in the case of the Diamondbacks is held in Missoula Montana.

The level of play in these Arizona Fall League games is reminiscent of a high school or community college game. These are not the polished professionals you normally think of when watching professional baseball. The jerseys have numbers but no names sewn on the back. One fan commented, “sometimes it takes longer to sew the names on the back of the jerseys than these kids will stay on the team.”

For some of these players it may be the only chance they get of telling their families and friends that they played professional baseball. For others this is just a stepping-stone to the next level and hopefully advancement.

In the case of the Diamondbacks there were two players that are the exception to that rule in tonight’s game. The designated hitter at tonight’s game was Arizona’s first round draft pick Stryker Trahan. While his talent would warrant playing at a higher designation, he is in the Arizona Summer League to allow the team to closely monitor his transition from amateur to professional. After the summer league concludes Trahan will participate in Instructional League then be given a workout regime before returning in February for his first Spring Training.

The second player in the Arizona line-up is one you would never expect and the reason why the crowd ballooned from a few family and friends who normally attend these games to more than 40 at the game tonight including Diamondbacks General Manager Kevin Towers and Manager Kirk Gibson.

The starting pitcher for the Diamondbacks was left hander Joe Saunders who is currently on the 15-day disabled list. Saunders had been saying since being put on the disabled list that his arm felt fine after he was not able to loosen up before his last scheduled start.

Subsequent to that scratch the Diamondbacks placed him on the disabled list with a strained left shoulder. Saunders has been working out and threw a simulated game pronouncing himself ready to return. Tonight would be the telling sign of whether he would be back in the Diamondbacks starting rotation after the All-Star break.

I should probably add the caveat here that you can’t really take the results of a game such as this and make any kind of value judgments. Pitching to a bunch of kids just out of high school or college is nothing like pitching to major league hitters nor is the fielding behind the pitcher anywhere near what it would be at the major league level. With a major league manager and general manager in the stands everyone was trying their best to impress. Some did, others didn’t but in the grand scheme of things neither Towers nor Gibson were there to see much beyond Saunders.

One rather comical side note; as soon as Gibson entered the complex the Diamondbacks coaches made a beeline to meet him and shake his hand. The news of Gibson’s arrival spread across through the stadium and dugouts faster than a monsoon through the valley and perhaps with the same level devastation. There was a similar phenomenon when Towers arrived. The Indians players came to the field very confident but once they heard they would be facing a major league pitcher their faces lit up. I’m sure it didn’t do Saunders confidence any favors when several of the players asked if he was a major leaguer since they didn’t recognize the name.

Saunders started off on a good note when he allowed one broken bat single in the first inning but otherwise pitching well and looked in control. In the second inning things unraveled a bit with a couple of defensive miscues and a walk leading to the Indians taking the league.

There were no radar guns or if there were the results were not announced. His velocity looked good and he was getting good movement on his pitches. His overall performance from a mechanics perspective would suggest that structurally and strength-wise Saunders is ok. He did walk several batters over his outing but that could be a result of trying different pitches to test his strength or the fact that the umpire crew is not used to seeing balls come across the plate at that speed or angle.

It appeared that Saunders was on a pitch count as he was removed from the game in the 5th inning with two outs. He left trailing 5-1 but seemed to be in good spirits stopping to sign autographs and have is picture taken with several fans that came to watch.

Towers and Gibson left shortly afterwards seeing what they needed to see. Only the Diamondbacks front office would know for sure whether the outing was a success but from my perspective Saunders seems to be fine structurally. Today will be a telling sign and whether Saunders has any residual soreness or shoulder pain. They may look to have him do one more rehab start before making a decision but it would likely not be at the Arizona Summer League.