Mariners counting on Saunders' experience

PEORIA, Ariz. -- As Mariners pitchers and catchers took to the field for the first time Wednesday, one of the newcomers was left-hander Joe Saunders, who finalized a one-year, $6.5 million deal on Tuesday and figures to be a key figure in the rotation going forward.

"He's a grinder, he's a competitor," said manager Eric Wedge. "He knows how to get big league hitters out. He pitches smart. I've seen him from the time he came up early on and I've seen how he's evolved. There's a certain degree of toughness there that I really like with him. And that goes a long way with me."

Saunders' experience is crucial to a Mariners staff that returns only one starter -- Felix Hernandez -- with more than one full year of Major League experience. The eight-year veteran is 78-65 with a 4.15 ERA in eight seasons and provides a capable replacement for Jason Vargas, who was traded to the Angels for Kendrys Morales.

Saunders pitched well enough for the Orioles down the stretch and in two postseason games that he was in some demand as a free agent, but the 31-year-old saw Seattle as the best destination.

"I liked where this organization was going," Saunders said. "I though they made some good moves, some good trades. I'm familiar with the division and looking to have some fun, try to take another team hopefully to the postseason. We'll see where it goes."

Saunders, who spent his first six seasons in the Majors with the Angels, is 6-0 with a 2.13 ERA in nine career starts at Safeco Field. That didn't hurt his decision-making process.

"I pitched against Seattle a lot," he said. "I remember coming to Safeco, I loved the ballpark, loved the feel of the ballpark. It was just a thing about where do I want to pitch and then look at what's easiest for your family and all that. It was pretty much an easy decision for me."