Tigers get needed relief by signing Benoit
Right-hander had dominant year as setup man for Tampa Bay
DETROIT -- Joaquin Benoit wasn't sure if he was going to have a career left after rotator cuff surgery. The rehab was slow, and the arm was reluctant.
Two years later, after one of the best, quietest comeback stories in baseball, he now has a home in the Tigers' bullpen and one of the biggest contracts ever given to a setup reliever. With Benoit's three-year, $16.5 million deal, meanwhile, the Tigers feel they have their answer to their bullpen woes.
"For us, we think this is a very important move this wintertime," team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said Friday, when the team formally announced the deal. "We had focused on trying to find a quality bullpen arm who can pitch the eighth inning for us, and we think we've added one of the best."
It was a quick, aggressive signing, but it was fitting. After spending all last offseason trying to prove his health and win a job, he became one of the first major free agents to sign.
A year ago, Benoit was lingering on the market after a risky surgery and a lost season on his resume. He was a reliable, if not spectacular, reliever for years with the Rangers before a rotator-cuff tear in 2008 threw his career into limbo. He underwent major surgery on the rotator cuff, from which a full recovery is anything but certain, and spent 2009 rehabbing his arm.
"It's something that you gamble," Benoit said. "There was a point when I had my rehab in Arlington, [Texas], that I thought it was over. It hurt too much. It's the thought process. It's the process of getting back in shape."
Slowly, steadily, he worked his way back to the point where his arm checked out healthy. Still, he wasn't sure how it would feel once he got back to throwing regularly. He also wasn't sure what he would have on his pitches, whether it was velocity or movement.
In many ways, he had some of the same questions that teams did. The Tigers looked at Benoit last offseason, but his recovery made him a question mark. He remained on the market until the start of Spring Training, when he inked a Minor League contract with the Rays that gave him a spot in camp. He wasn't ready to win a spot in the Opening Day bullpen, but he was close, and he felt the Rays had an opportunity waiting for him.
"It's different when you haven't pitched in a year, a year and a half," Benoit said. "But for me, last year, it was a little to see how my arm would feel. That was the only question. As a pitcher, when you have a surgery and you never in your life experienced that, coming back from it, you don't know what to expect."
He didn't really know all the way through Spring Training. It wasn't until an April game at Triple-A Durham, toiling away in the International League, that he felt confident enough to believe in his stuff.
From there, Benoit went about convincing the rest of baseball, starting with the Rays. By season's end, nearly everyone believed, especially those teams looking for relief help.
Once the Rays recalled him from Triple-A Durham in late April, Benoit not only earned a coveted role as the setup man for closer Rafael Soriano, but he came to be widely considered one of baseball's best eighth-inning relievers. The consistency of his pitches -- and his results -- was uncanny.
His fastball bumped up to the mid-90s, his slider had bite and he added an effective changeup to his arsenal of pitches, making it difficult for hitters to make solid contact.
The basic numbers were solid enough: Benoit allowed just 30 hits over 60 1/3 innings, with 11 walks and 75 strikeouts. Opponents batted just .147 against him, and he allowed just two of 23 inherited runners to score. He walked just 1.6 hitters per nine innings, a better ratio than he had ever posted, as was his ratio of 11.2 strikeouts per nine innings.
Though opponents swung at nearly 40 percent of Benoit's pitches outside the strike zone, according to fangraphs.com, he wasn't simply a swing-and-miss reliever. Opposing batters hit .192 on balls put in play, more than 50 points lower than his ratio in any previous season. Just 11 of the 30 hits he allowed went for extra bases. Six of them were home runs.
"I think I was the same type of pitcher as I was before," Benoit said. "It's more right now I don't have anything bothering me. I don't try to change my arm slot to get better movement, so now I'm more aggressive. I feel like I'm healthier and I think more confident."
Situationally, the numbers held up. First batters went just 7-for-61 with one walk and 22 strikeouts. Opponents went 3-for-28 with 10 strikeouts with runners in scoring position. He allowed two sacrifice flies with a runner on third and fewer than two outs, but nary a hit, as opponents went 0-for-6 in those situations.
The Tigers saw enough of him during a four-game series sweep by the Rays at Tropicana Field in late July. Once the season wound down and the Tigers began scouting potential free agents, they took a longer look.
"We thoroughly scouted him," Dombrowski said, "but not any more than we would thoroughly scout any player. We have a scout, Jeff Wetherby, in Tampa, [Fla.], who saw him pitch a lot last year. Knowing he was a free agent like a lot of other people in September, we would've watched him a little bit more than we did earlier."
Dombrowski said at season's end that the Tigers were looking for a reliever like Brandon Lyon, who was a consistent shutdown presence in the eighth inning for the Tigers in 2009, while also taking an occasional save situation. Detroit tried to re-sign Lyon last offseason with a two-year offer, but it couldn't match the three-year, $15 million deal he received from Houston.
The Tigers weren't going to take the chance of coming up short this time. Benoit's reported contract is believed to be the longest Dombrowski has ever offered for a reliever in Detroit, the longest contract for a non-closing reliever with the Tigers since Danny Patterson signed a three-year, $7 million contract in 2002. According to reports, it's the largest given to any non-closing reliever since Scott Linebrink signed a four-year, $19 million deal with the White Sox three years ago.
"A couple other clubs had made three-year offers on him that were very solid offers," Dombrowski said. "He was somebody we identified at the top of our list for setup men, and we wanted to be aggressive."
Benoit, who had enough of waiting for a contract last winter, didn't wait. He did not get the closing opportunity some wondered he might receive for next year, but he might eventually get it in Detroit. He'll set up next year for Jose Valverde, who enters the final guaranteed season of his contract before Detroit must decide whether to pick up his $9 million option.
"I think if I can do it again next year, then I can try to go to a different role," said Benoit. "But right now, I'm just enjoying what I'm doing. And I don't want to do something that I'm not 100 percent as good as what I'm doing right now. So I can try it for one or two more years. And I know with the Tigers right now, we have a great closer in Jose Valverde."