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02/13/2013 6:18 PM ET

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."

Visa issues delay arrivals of Paulino, Nunez

PEORIA, Ariz. -- Catcher Ronny Paulino and right-handed reliever Jhonny Nunez were not in camp with the Mariners for their first workout on Wednesday due to visa issues that delayed their departures out of the Dominican Republic.

Both players are non-roster invitees on Minor League contracts, though Paulino is expected to challenge for a backup role on a team that has only two catchers -- Jesus Montero and Kelly Shoppach -- on its 40-man roster.

Manager Eric Wedge said Paulino, an eight-year Major League veteran who played for the Orioles last season, was expected to arrive in the next day or so. Nunez's appearance might take a little longer.

"We're hoping both of them are here by the end of the week," Wedge said.

Nunez, 27, is a right-hander who pitched in the Rays' Minor League system last year. Paulino, 31, is a career .272 hitter in 573 games for the Pirates, Marlins, Mets and Orioles.

Wedge: Mariners' increase in talent 'dramatic'

PEORIA, Ariz. -- Eric Wedge got his first full look at the 32 pitchers in camp with the Mariners on Wednesday and wasted no time noting how much the talent level has improved since his arrival in Seattle in 2011.

"I don't know if I can put it into words, it's that dramatic," Wedge said. "If you look at all the pitchers we have in camp here and even all the position players, the 61 guys we've got now vs. where we were a couple years ago, it's off-the-charts different. It's as dramatic as anything I've seen in a couple years' time."

Wedge is bullish on the young prospects coming up in the system, but also appreciates that a couple veteran pitchers have been added to the mix in Joe Saunders and non-roster invitees Jon Garland and Jeremy Bonderman. That means youngsters like Taijuan Walker, Danny Hultzen, James Paxton and Brandon Maurer can be given time to develop at their own pace.

Wedge wouldn't hazard a guess on the rotation right now, beyond the obvious.

"It's too early to tell," he said. "We'll just leave it at Felix [Hernandez] right now. We've got [Hisashi] Iwakuma and Saunders. Beyond that, we've got a lot of competition. We've got some solid options, whether it be veteran guys or some of the younger kids we have in camp. There are 15 starting pitchers in camp we have to see and look at, so that's pretty extreme."

Garland, coming back from shoulder surgery, was one of 15 pitchers who threw 10-minute bullpen sessions Wednesday. The other half of the pitchers will throw Thursday.

"He looked good," Wedge said. "Free and easy. He's got a great pitcher's body, the guy knows how to pitch and compete and get big league hitters out. He looked good and healthy today."

Greg Johns is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB as well as his Mariners Musings blog. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.