BALTIMORE — The Orioles added to their organizational pitching depth Friday by signing left-handed pitcher Joe Saunders to a minor-league deal, leading many to wonder whether former All-Star closer Jim Johnson could be the next former Baltimore pitcher to return to the organization.
After beginning the season in the Rangers’ starting rotation, Saunders was released twice in the month of July and went 0-5 with a 6.13 ERA in eight starts for Texas this season. After being released by the Rangers on July 4, Saunders signed a minor-league deal with the Royals and was let go earlier this week after posting a 6.75 ERA in four starts for Triple-A Omaha.
Of course, Saunders was acquired by the Orioles late in the 2012 season and went 3-3 with a 3.63 ERA in seven starts spanning 44 2/3 innings and was the winning pitcher in the inaugural American League Wild Card Game to send the Orioles to their first American League Division Series appearance since 1997. The 33-year-old went 11-16 with a 5.26 ERA in 32 starts for Seattle last season.
Realistically speaking, Saunders provides little more than some injury insurance as well as an option to pitch in long relief if he can work out the issues that have plagued him all season and prompted two other organizations to give up on him in the last month alone.
The more interesting question presented Friday came after the Oakland Athletics officially released Johnson, who pitched to a disastrous 7.14 ERA in 38 appearances and lost his closer job with his new — and now former — club at the beginning of the season. After Johnson collected a combined 101 saves for the Orioles in 2012 and 2013, executive vice president of baseball operations dealt him to Oakland for infielder Jemile Weeks and catcher David Freitas last winter.
Needless to say, the deal was an utter failure for Oakland while the Orioles haven’t really benefited with their return beyond saving the $10 million the 2012 All-Star selection was set to earn through arbitration in 2014. It’s clear that Johnson needed a change of scenery and a mental break at the very least, but would the Orioles consider bringing back the 31-year-old on a minor-league deal?
Manager Buck Showalter tried to dodge the question on Friday, but it’s no secret that Johnson was one of his favorites in Baltimore.
“We like Jimmy. He pitched real well for us here.” Showalter said. “He’s on his way to Sarasota. I know [pitching rehabilitation coordinator] Scotty McGregor is real close to him. If he becomes completely available, I’m sure a lot of people would have interest in him — including us.”
Showalter mentioning Johnson going to Sarasota was interesting considering it’s the club’s spring training home and the pitcher lives there, making it a compelling landing spot for him to clear his head and figure out his woes to get his career back on track.
Of course, the Orioles just acquired left-handed reliever Andrew Miller to sure up the back end of the bullpen and don’t have a pressing need, but Johnson’s track record wouldn’t make it a terrible idea to see if the organization can fix his problems — he averaged 5.1 walks per nine innings and posted a 2.06 WHIP in Oakland — and make him a middle relief option later this year or even next. Prior to this season, Johnson had pitched to an ERA under 3.00 in three consecutive seasons and was an above-average reliever in the AL for a number of years.
Just like the Saunders signing, a potential move to ink Johnson to a minor-league deal should be viewed with very little consequence and no serious expectations, but the familiar surroundings of the Orioles organization would seem to be a good fit if the reliever is to get his career back on track. Johnson was quite fond of his time in Baltimore and was quite emotional upon learning he had been traded last December.
Above all, it’s the kind of reclamation project that has Duquette and the Orioles written all over it, which would make his return not the least bit surprising.