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Why the Orioles want to bring back old players like Joe Saunders

BaseballMajor League BaseballBaltimore OriolesJim JohnsonBrian RobertsJoe SaundersTexas Rangers

We all know Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette loves taking low-risk, high-reward gambles. That’s been his calling card since he arrived in Baltimore before the 2012 season. It’s worked at times: Nate McLouth, Miguel Gonzalez and, to an extent, Nelson Cruz. And it hasn’t worked at times: Dontrelle Willis, Heath Bell, Randy Wolf.

Well, Duquette did it again Friday when he signed left-hander Joe Saunders to a minor league deal. All signs point to him trying it again in the next few days with former Orioles closer Jim Johnson. And then there’s second baseman Brian Roberts, a longtime Oriole who was designated for assignment Thursday by the New York Yankees.

Each is a different case. Here are some thoughts on each:

Saunders:  He’s been terrible this season. He was 0-5 with a 6.13 ERA before being released by the Texas Rangers in July. He then posted a 6.75 ERA in four starts at Triple-A Omaha before the Kansas City Royals released him this week. He wasn’t very good last year, either: 11-16 with a 5.26 ERA in 32 starts for the Seattle Mariners.

But Saunders, 33, gave the Orioles a big lift at the end of the 2012 season and continued to do so into the postseason, picking up the win against the Texas Rangers in the Orioles’ first playoff game in 15 years. He’s also a Virginia native, so signing him to a minors deal and sending him to Triple-A Norfolk is an obvious fit. He’ll report there Monday.

The most interesting thing is that he is going there to pitch in relief, something Saunders never has done in 229 career big league games. The Orioles want to see whether he can adapt to a bullpen role, maybe become a left-handed-hitter specialist (left-handers have hit .242 against him in his career, compared with .295 for right-handers). If the Orioles have a need, they always could put him into the Tides’ rotation, but for now, they are trying something different. And why not? If it doesn’t work out, both sides will move on.

Johnson: He’s also been terrible since the Orioles traded him in the offseason to the Oakland Athletics. With Oakland, Johnson was 4-2 with a 7.14 ERA and just two saves after picking up 101 for the Orioles over the 2012 and 2013 seasons. He allowed 60 hits and 23 walks in 40 1/3 innings — that’s more than two base runners per inning. Those kinds of numbers make you wonder why the Orioles, or anyone, would want to sign the guy.

Here’s why: When Johnson is on, he throws a bowling-ball sinker in the low to mid-90s. At 31, it’s hard to believe he has completely lost that. The Orioles organization loved his competitiveness and professionalism and would give him another chance to get his mechanics right. They can talk to him now but can’t sign until Sunday, at the earliest. Expect Johnson to work out for the Orioles shortly thereafter. A minor league signing presumably would follow.

Despite agreeing to a one-year, $10 million contract with the A’s, Johnson is owed only a prorated portion of the league minimum if he makes the majors. So, again, this is a low-risk move. The best guess is that the Orioles would have Johnson work on his mechanics with pitching rehabilitation coordinator Scott McGregor, who has known Johnson for years. McGregor works mainly out of the organization’s facility in Sarasota, Fla., where Johnson lives in the offseason. Later this month, Johnson could end up at a minor league affiliate such as Double-A Bowie or Norfolk and, if things go well, be in Baltimore when rosters expand in September.

Things certainly could happen to derail that scenario. Maybe another club swoops in with an immediate, major league offer. But Johnson loved the Orioles, they loved him, and it just seems like a slam-dunk reunion.

Roberts: This one is a lot trickier. And a lot less likely. First, he’s still Yankees property. They have 10 days from Thursday to trade, release or ask waivers on the 36-year-old. Roberts stayed relatively healthy this year; he batted .237 with a .300 on-base percentage in 348 plate appearances over 91 games (the Yankees owed him a $250,000 bonus if he made 350 plate appearances).

Roberts played his first 13 seasons with the Orioles and always has been a favorite of ownership. The Orioles also haven’t gotten any offensive production out of second base, with Jonathan Schoop batting .211 and Ryan Flaherty .205. But those two have played good defense and, at this stage in his career, Roberts would be a downgrade defensively. He wouldn’t be much of a boost offensively, either.

The sense is that the Orioles don’t see him as a fit; they didn’t make any attempt last offseason to re-sign him. So my guess is that the club passes on him. And, frankly, they may not have a choice. A National League contender, for instance, looking for a switch-hitting infielder and pinch runner (he’s 7-for-11 in stolen-base attempts) may attempt to acquire him in the next week. If he is an unencumbered free agent, the Orioles always could kick the tires. But I’d be surprised if Roberts ends up back in Baltimore this year.

dan.connolly@baltsun.com

twitter.com/danconnollysun

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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BaseballMajor League BaseballBaltimore OriolesJim JohnsonBrian RobertsJoe SaundersTexas Rangers
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