Think back to 2012. The pitcher that was first sent away to the minors, then was called up and pitched one of the most important games of the season. That pitcher was John Lannan and while the Nationals can't have him back they can have someone very close to him. John Lannan is a career 4.12 ERA pitcher with a 4.7 K/9 and a 3.4 BB/9. Joe Saunders is a career 4.30 ERA pitcher with a 5.1 K/9 and a 2.8 BB/9. Very close to being the same guy and while John Lannan has already been signed to a minor league deal with the Mets, Joe Saunders remains a free agent. This is a little puzzling as pitchers less talented than him have signed and some have even been signed the major league deals. Joe Saunders would be a good place holder for a bad team waiting for prospects to develop much like Livan Hernandez was in 2010 and 2011. Luckily for the Nationals teams like the Astros, Cubs, Marlins, or Twins have realized this. Saunders is good enough to deserve a major league deal worth around $1 or $2 million, but a team like the Nationals can't offer him that while the lesser teams in the league have been unwilling. It is an interesting position Saunders finds himself in. He and his agent have a right to ask for a major league deal, but if one doesn't exist as of February 27th then they are going to have to settle for a minor league deal, and that is where he makes sense for the Nationals.
As of this moment the Syracuse Chiefs starting rotation appears to be AJ Cole, Tanner Roark, Taylor Jordan, Chris Young, and either Paul Demny or Blake Treinen. Joe Saunders is a better pitcher than Chris Young and Demny and Treinen are fringe starting pitchers that could be moved to the bullpen. There is room in AAA for Saunders and he is a better emergency option than Chris Young. Now if Young makes it to the majors that means something has gone terribly wrong or at least terribly wrong with the fifth starters spot. If Detwiler gets hurt, Roark's 2013 was a mirage, AJ Cole isn't ready, and Taylor Jordan under performs then Chris Young becomes the Nationals fifth starter. That is a lot going wrong, but an injury to any of the other four starting pitchers would suddenly mean less has to go wrong.
Joe Saunders isn't the best pitcher out there or even a pitcher with high upside. He is the equivalent of John Lannan, and that is what makes him useful to the Nats. If preparations A through G fail and the Nats need to reach for that preparation H it is better that it is Joe Saunders than Chris Young and if that fails then they still have Chris Young. It is a solution that the team hopes not to use but it is better to have that ultimate back-up plan and not use it than to not have it at all.
The benefit to signing with the Nationals for Joe Saunders is he played his High School baseball at West Springfield High School. Just a couple miles away from the Citizens of Natstown compound, right across the street from the Giant where we sometimes buy beer, oh and TJ and Sean’s alma mater. Joe Saunders is a local kid and while signing with the Nationals wouldn't guarantee him a spot pitching for his hometown team, it is the only way that he has a chance to. Saunders also happens to be left handed and could be a second left handed reliever out the bullpen. His career splits are extreme with a .826 OPS against right handed hitters and a .617 OPS against left handed hitters. That type of conversion to a Gorzelanny type long reliever could be the best thing for Joe Saunders and a way that the Nationals could sign him, use him on the major league roster, and still have him available as an emergency starting pitcher.
Signing Joe Saunders makes sense for both the Nationals and Joe Saunders. It would have to be a minor league deal; it is February 27th and a major league deal would be very hard to come by for Saunders or any free agent still on the market. If Saunders is going to take a minor league deal it makes sense that he takes one for his hometown team and with a team with a chance to win. Joe Saunders is essentially the same pitcher as John Lannan and if in the system could help the 2014 Nats in the same way John Lannan helped the 2012 Nats.