Tony Saunders was the future of baseball in Tampa Bay. More than that, he was its microcosm.
Tony Saunders was a rare undrafted free agent coming off of Glen Burnie HIgh School in Maryland in 1992 and signed with the Florida Marlins. Immediately he made it clear that every team in baseball had made a mistake passing on him. The lefty posted a 1.18 ERA in 24 relief appearances at Rookie ball, posting a 37-13 strikeout to walk ratio in 45.2 innings, and it was just the start. Saunders split time between starting and relieving at Low-A in 1993 and dominated again, posting a 2.27 ERA and a 87-32 strikeout to walk ratio in 83.2 IP. After spending the next two years at High-A with solid results, Saunders broke out at Double-A at age 22 in 1996, going 13-4 with a 2.63 ERA, 156 strikeouts (8.4 K/9), 62 walks (3.3 BB/9), and 10 homers allowed (0.5 HR/9) in 26 starts, including 2 complete games, and 167.2 innings pitched. He would spend nearly all of 1997 in the major leagues.
Saunders had gone from undrafted out of high school to 23 year old major league rookie. His first big league season certainly could have been better, but he still showed considerable promise. Saunders went 4-6 with a 4.61 ERA, 102 strikeouts (8.2 K/9), 64 walks (5.2 BB/9), and 12 home runs allowed (1.0 HR/9) in 21 starts, 1 relief appearance, and 111.1 IP. The Marlins thought enough of Saunders to give him a start each in the NLCS in World Series, although the first (5.1 IP, 2 ER) went much better than the second (2 IP, 6 ER). Saunders nevertheless got a ring as the Marlins triumphed over the Cleveland Indians in the World Series. But after the season, the Marlins lost faith in Saunders. With the expansion draft for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and Arizona Diamondbacks occurring in November of 1997, the Marlins chose to leave Saunders off their protected list, leaving him available to be drafted. The Devil Rays promptly selected Saunders with the expansion draft’s first pick and knew that they were getting a major league pitcher with a year already under his belt and the potential to improve significantly.
In 1998, Saunders started the third game in Devil Rays history and clinched the D-Rays’ second win, going 6 innings versus the Detroit Tigers, allowing 1 run on 5 hits, striking out 7 while walking just 2. Saunders would be streaky all season. He posted a 5.02 ERA in April, a 2.89 ERA in May, a 7.36 ERA in June, a 1.72 ERA in July, a 5.08 ERA in August, and a 2.70 ERA in September and early October. His overall results were pretty good. He went just 6-15 for the 99-loss Devil Rays team, but he posted a 4.12 ERA with 172 strikeouts (8.0 K/9), 111 walks (5.2 BB/9), and just 15 home runs allowed (0.5 HR/9) in 31 starts, including 2 complete games, and 192.1 IP. He led the AL in walks but his 4.25 FIP was definitely respectable and his 172 strikeouts led the Rays staff. Big things were expected from Saunders in coming years.
But suddenly, everything collapsed. Saunders struggled to begin 1999, posting a 6.18 ERA with just a 28-28 strikeout to walk ratio in his first 8 starts of the season spanning 39.1 IP. But while he wasn’t good that he was struggling, Saunders had shown that he was a streaky pitcher, and the hope was that Saunders would figure everything out before long. He never got a chance to. In the third inning of his next start, Saunders delivered a pitch to Rafael Palmeiro. Something was clearly wrong. The pitch was way off-line, turning into a wild pitch that allowed a run to score. But that was not why the entire stadium went silent. Saunders let out a scream as he fell to the ground. His left arm had snapped when he threw the pitch. His arm was broken. He would never appear in another major league game.
Saunders eventually recovered and took a mound again in a rehab assignment in June of 2000. His first 3 starts came and went without a problem. But in his 4th start, it happened again. Saunders somehow broke his arm again. That was it for him. Saunders retired in a teary press conference later that year. For the next five years, the Rays annually gave out the Tony Saunders award for courageous athletes.
Saunders attempted a comeback with the Baltimore Orioles in 2005, still just 31 years old, but he never threw a single pitch. Jose Canseco later claimed in Juiced that Saunders broke his arm because of extreme overdoes of steroids and HGH. Those claims have never been substantiated.
“The potential was there. But not only did nothing come to fruition, but everything fell apart.”- those words could apply to Saunders or the Tampa Bay Devil Rays franchise. Saunders had the ability. But whatever the reason, his arm refused to cooperate with him, and before we knew it he was gone. The Devil Rays watched as the Arizona Diamondbacks won the World Series in just their 4th year of existence. The Rays meanwhile, looked like they were going to put the commitment in to achieve that level of play. They acquired players with considerable talent. They were unafraid to pony up bonuses to guys like Matt White, Paul Wilder, and Jason Standridge. But the Naimoli ownership lost their commitment to winning and became as frugal as possible. In 2005, the Devil Rays selected Wade Townshend in that year’s draft at 8th overall, only because they knew that he would sign for a below-slot bonus. The Rays are lucky. They have gotten time to recover, time to heal, and have moved beyond those years. Tony Saunders never got the chance.