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Know Your Orioles 40-man: Phoenix Sanders

Will he earn a fun nickname like “The Colonel”? “Dark Phoenix”? Or maybe he’ll never even pitch for the Orioles.

Oakland Athletics v Tampa Bay Rays
The most recent addition to the Orioles 40-man roster is former Rays reliever Phoenix Sanders.
Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images

Over the offseason, Camden Chat published an article about each member of the Orioles 40-man roster. During the 2022 season, we will update on new arrivals after they make it to the roster.

NOTE: The Orioles designated Sanders for assignment on 9/3/22. He is no longer on the 40-man roster. Dreams of calling him “Ace Attorney” have been dashed.

How he arrived: Waiver claim from Tampa Bay Rays, 8/24/22

Who left: Brett Phillips designated for assignment, 8/19/22

Since the start of the 2022 season, the Orioles have added a dozen different relievers to the 40-man roster. Nine of the previous eleven pitchers have appeared in six or fewer games for the team this year. Four of those nine are not even on the roster any more. This is not a group that has had staying power, though there are exceptions. Nick Vespi has had several stints in the bullpen, enough to appear in 20 games, and Austin Voth has somehow been turned into a thus-far-reliable starting pitcher.

This is necessary context for considering the latest pitcher who will be trying to stick in the Orioles pitching mix, Phoenix Sanders. The 27-year-old right-handed reliever was claimed on waivers by the Orioles earlier this month. Most of the players who have arrived on the team in this way have not been consequential. You never know when someone might turn into a surprise success. No one would have guessed Voth would have a 2.72 ERA with the Orioles.

Unlike in the earlier months of the season, when the Orioles were bad and high up on waiver priority, if they claim someone now, it means all the bad teams did not put in a claim. They did not look at Sanders and see some essential piece to a rebuilding effort, or even a useful guy to churn through while playing out the string on a bad season or two. The Orioles had an open 40-man spot and liked something about his profile, so here he is. Sanders was optioned to Triple-A Norfolk upon arriving in the organization.

Sanders is not a pitcher who fits into any of the common molds that are present today. Listed at 5’10”, he’s one of the shortest pitchers to throw a pitch in the league this season. He doesn’t throw the ball very hard, listed at just the 7th percentile in velocity according to Statcast. In pure number terms, it’s an 89.8mph average fastball. Only two 2022 Orioles are below that: Vespi and Alexander Wells.

The Sanders fastball doesn’t spin very much, either, coming in at 14th percentile. Fellow soft-tosser Vespi at least gets a 60th percentile spin rate, and of course Vespi has the benefit of being a lefty, which usually gives a pitcher a little more leeway with a lack of velocity. This is not the first waiver claim made during this season where I can only scratch my head in response.

What Sanders does have going for him is a recent track record of high-minors success, with a solid handful of games at the MLB level under his belt this year. The former 10th round pick from the Rays 2017 draft class was already 22 years old when drafted as a senior out of the University of South Florida. He’s been nearly exclusively a reliever in his professional career.

Within two years of being drafted, Sanders was plowing through Double-A hitters and got a taste of Triple-A in the last month of that 2019 season. Then, like so many other minor leaguers, the pandemic came along and there was no competition to measure himself against.

Sanders returned to the Rays Triple-A affiliate Durham to start 2021. He pitched 50 games in relief for the Bulls, striking out 80 batters over 64 innings. The command was good, too, with Sanders walking just 11 batters. That’s a walk rate of only 4.5%. It added up to a sub-1.00 WHIP for the then-26-year-old.

This was not enough, however, for the Rays to decide to put Sanders on their 40-man roster in advance of the Rule 5 draft that never ended up happening due to the lockout. He found his way to the MLB roster early this season anyway in the temporary post-lockout roster expansion.

Across two MLB stints, Sanders has a 3.07 ERA in 14.2 innings. He’s not carried over the gaudy minor league strikeouts, but he kept the walks under control, so his K/BB ratio is 4. It’s a good ratio. Among current O’s pitchers, only Dillon Tate and Félix Bautista exceed that. It’s also a small sample size.

Had Sanders been pitching like this at Triple-A, the Rays would have been less likely to put him on waivers. He’s run into problems at the level this season though, allowing a 5.40 ERA in 30 games for Durham. That’s still included an excellent K/BB ratio - a whopping 18. It’s not a one- or two-game fluke. Batters have been hitting him a lot. Maybe it’s bad luck, maybe it’s bad pitching. Scouting minor league results only tells so much.

Does it mean anything altogether? Who knows. It meant enough for Mike Elias to claim Sanders on waivers when he had an open roster spot already and the chance presented itself. The Orioles could probably use another player to fit in the “throw in the 5th-7th innings of losses and hope they don’t let the game get out of hand,” or “throw the 8th and 9th inning of blowout wins” box of pitcher. Maybe Sanders will take Rico Garcia’s spot at some time in September.

Still to come: That’s all, for now