Monday, July 20, 2020

NOT 1997 Topps All-Star Rookie Tony Saunders

Before we move on from the 1997 Topps All-Star Rookie squad, there's just one more bit of business. As you know, the Topps All-Star Rookie trophy is placed on cards the year after a player makes the ASR roster. But a funny thing happened in 1998. There were two expansion teams, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and the Arizona Diamondbacks. For some reason, Topps decided to slap a Topps All-Star Rookie Cup on Tony Saunders' card. He did have an interesting and productive 1997 season, winning a World Series with the Marlins, and becoming the first overall pick in the 1998 Expansion Draft. 

The back of his 1998 Topps card is similarly weird. This design is a departure from the rest of the set, and I can see what they are going for. So, it's true that Tony Saunders was not a Topps All-Star Rookie. But! He is still worthy of the Highly Subjective and Completely Arbitrary treatment. His story is one worth telling, for sure.

Saunders was the #1 Overall pick in the 1998 expansion draft, but that was the first time he'd been drafted at all. He finished his senior season with the Glen Burnie High School Gophers, and had a scholarship in hand to attend George Mason University. The All-County hurler was eager to get his professional career started instead. Despite being passed over in the 1992 MLB June Draft, he attended an open tryout and was signed for $1,000 to pitch for the Florida Marlins' Gulf Coast League affiliate. 

He pitched well in Rookie ball, where he was used exclusively as a reliever. In 1993, he moved up to the Single A Midwest League, getting 10 starts and pitching to a 2.27 ERA with an impressive 2.72 K/BB ratio. The injury bug would bite hard, and Saunders underwent reconstructive surgery on his elbow, limiting him to just 23 appearances over the next two seasons combined. He flourished in 1996 with the AA Portland Sea Dogs. He had the best W-L record of his pro career, going 13-4 with a 2.63 ERA. His walks were up a bit from prior seasons, but he still had a very good K/BB ratio and was striking out batters at a rate of 8.4 K/9 innings. After a decent showing in the Arizona Fall League, Saunders would be slated to join the Marlins' rotation in 1997.

In 1997, The Marlins had just about everything fall their way en route to a World Series Championship. For Saunders, he was joining a rotation with Kevin Brown and Al Leiter, both All-Stars. The Marlins also had Alex Fernandez, who had a tremendous season, his best since his days with the White Sox. This strong veteran presence gave room for Saunders to grow and learn on the job in the big leagues. He made 21 regular season starts for the Marlins, with just a 4-6 record and a career high walk rate. The positives? He led all rookies with his 8.24 K/9 rate, had a scorching hot month of July (1.44 ERA) and absolutely owned the division-rival Braves. They hit just .176 against him in 4 regular season starts, resulting in 3 victories for Saunders. Looking on the bright side, all of the coaches and teammates agreed that Saunders had the potential to be something really special.  

His regular season success against Atlanta came in handy, when the team faced them again in the NLCS. His Game 3 start may not have set the world on fire, but for 5 and a third innings, he kept a dangerous and battle-tested lineup at bay before giving way to NLCS MVP Livan Hernandez to help shut the door.  

The Marlins' fire sale began almost immediately after lifting the Commissioner's Trophy, starting with the coaching staff. Marlins pitching coach Larry Rothschild was named Tampa Bay's new Manager, so it came as no surprise to anyone that Saunders was at the top of the Devil Rays' wish list. They made Saunders their first overall pick, and he slotted into their rotation behind the 32 year old rookie and Cuban defector, Rolando Arrojo. 

In 1998, Saunders would get a career high 31 starts and 192 and a third innings pitched. He would lead the league in Walks allowed, but still had a respectable 118 ERA+. The biggest enemy of Saunders' success in 1998 was run support. Despite having Wade Boggs and Fred McGriff in the lineup, the Devil Rays had little to offer beyond that at the plate. It resulted in the worst run support (3.5 runs per 9 innings) of any starter in the American League. Saunders had his ups and downs, but he had 21 starts in which he allowed 3 or fewer runs. It might not seem that impressive on the surface, but there were only 2 pitchers in the AL with more starts like it that season- Pedro Martinez and Roger Clemens.  

Of course, the story takes a dark turn after this. Early in the 1999 season, Saunders was pitching to Juan Gonzalez of the Texas Rangers. On a 3-2 pitch, Saunders threw wildly, allowing a run to score. But the bigger story was that the errant throw was the result of a fracture in his humerus, which left Saunders in agony. (Normally this would be a time to post a link, but I'll skip that and just say you can pretty easily find it with a youtube search, I won't make it any easier than that.) Saunders was one of four pitchers to have suffered a similar injury in that past decade or so- Dave Dravecky, Norm Charlton, Tom Browning, and John Smiley. Charlton was the only one to pitch significant innings following the injury.

Miraculously, Saunders was on the mound again in 2000, returning in July with stints in AAA and AA. He was awarded the Tony Conigliaro Award as comeback player of the year. But his arm would break a second time in August, just above the first break from a year ago. He would be out of baseball for several years before coming back in 2005 to try out for the Baltimore Orioles, coming full circle back to his Maryland roots. He did not appear in any official Spring Training games as non-roster invitee before being released. He would go on to serve as a pitching coach for a Glen Burnie, MD baseball academy in the 2000s, and even pitched an inning in the 2010 Hall of Fame Classic in Cooperstown, pitching for team Killebrew. 

Any specific Tony Saunders memories you'd like to share? I'd love to read them in the comments below. Thanks for reading!


  1. No Tony Saunders stories, but I did coach a team of 14 year olds that included a kid who broke his arm throwing a pitch.

    1. yikes! Do you know if he came back and played again after that?

    2. No. Last I heard was he was going to focus on hockey

  2. Today was probably the first time I've thought about Saunders since he became the first pick of the 1998 Expansion Draft... and that's assuming I even heard the news back then. Great post though. Got my fill of baseball trivia for the day.

  3. I was a Braves fan in the mid ‘90’s before the Rays came into existence, so I hated Saunders in ‘97 because he and the pesky Marlins beat the Braves in the NLCS. Then Saunders got drafted by Tampa, and I was slowly converted to a Saunders fan. Part of it probably had to do with the fact that I was at the Trop on April 22, 1999 when he pitched no-hit ball for 6 innings against the Orioles, finally allowing a single to Mike Bordick. The relievers didn’t allow a hit, and that was the closest I’ve come to seeing a no no in person. Later, I was able to get Tony to sign my ticket stub through the mail.