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Indians and Padres battling for Joaquin Benoit

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Joaquin Benoit (photo: AP)

Joaquin Benoit joining the Indians? (photo: AP)

The Cleveland Indians and the San Diego Padres are both bidding for the services of former Detroit Tigers reliever Joaquin Benoit.

Benoit began his career as a starter for the Texas Rangers in 2001, but after four years of struggle, he was moved to the bullpen because his ERA was never below 5.31. He wasn’t much better as a reliever at first in 2006, but in 2007, things turned around quickly. He struck out 87 hitters, while walking only 28 in 82 total innings, coming in with a 2.85 ERA. The Rangers rewarded him with a two-year deal worth $6 million.

Unfortunately, things started to turn for the worse after that for the power righty. He struggled through much of the beginning of 2008, before finally heading to the DL in July for over a month. He wasn’t any better when he returned in August. He ended the season with a 5.00 ERA, and 35 walks, with 43 strikeouts in 45 innings.

Talk about a bad break. He missed the final year prior to free agency.

It did, fortunately, usher in a new era in his career.
The Tampa Bay Rays, a team that’s known for their reclamation projects, took a chance on the then-32-year old reliever, signing him to a minor league contract in 2010, to the tune of $750,000.

Can you say jackpot?

Benoit started the 2010 season off here in Durham, and while he wasn’t dominant, he certainly seemed back. His fastball was popping the guns here at 95-plus, and in combination with a plus offspeed pitch, he looked like he was ready to return.

The Rays agreed.

They called Benoit up in late April, and he dominated for the rest of the year as a primary set-up man for Rafael Soriano with the Rays. He finished the year going 60 1/3 innings, with 75 strikeouts and only 11 walks, and had a streamlined 1.34 ERA.

It’s like voodoo with the Rays at times, and Benoit paid of in a big way.

The Rays did what they do though, and let Benoit walk after the season. They received their value in signing a player to a low-risk, cost effective contract, who just happened to have a high upside, and needed to perform well to get his deal. In losing him to free agency, they received a supplemental draft pick.

Talk about a win-win.

The Detroit Tigers came a callin’ after that 2010 season, signing the set-up man to a three-year, $16.55 million deal. He was signed as a set-up man to Jose Valverde in 2011. It’s a role he served well in for two seasons, before he was moved to the closer’s role in June of this year when Valverde faltered…after struggling a bit last season as well.

Over the past three seasons, he’s had a 2.89 ERA, with 9.9 K/9, with only 2.8 BB/9 over that stretch. His FIP during that stretch has been at 3.39, and his xFIP is even more telling, with an extremely stable 3.24, never going above 3.29, and never going below 3.16 during his Tigers’ tenure.

Benoit really took off in 2013 though, when given the closer’s role with Detroit in June, coming through with a 2.01 ERA, a 2.87 FIP, and that 3.16 xFIP, and saving 22 games, before blowing a couple of games in September.

Yahoo Sports’ Jeff Passan broke the news that the Indians may be in play with Benoit a couple of days ago, via twitter:

Benoit is a 36-year old reliever/closer, who hasn’t exactly taken the straightest line to become a back-end reliever.

There really are a lot of things to like about Benoit. He clearly wants to be a closer, but he’s stated in several interviews that he is more than willing to take on any role in any bullpen. Of course, there aren’t many teams that are going to ante up the money that Benoit wants for a guy that’s not closing, but you never know. Joe Smith is a $5 million man now.

The only stat that concerns me with Benoit, other than his age, is the fact that his walks per nine have gone up every year since he’s returned from the rotator cuff surgery. In 2010, he sat at 1.6, then 2.5, then 2.8, and finally 3.0 this past year. I’m not sure what that indicates, as his K-Rate hasn’t really fluctuated in any direction of concern, nor has his velocity dropped in any meaningful way.

And his change-up is absolutely wicked…if I didn’t mention that before. When he’s got the fastball working, his changeup drops off a table, and makes hitters look just utterly ridiculous.

So what’s the catch with Benoit?

Well, you can start with the fact that it’s believed that he wants a two-year, $14 million deal at the very least, and it’s also believed that the Padres are willing to give him at least that, and possibly add a third-year option.

The Indians are also rumored to have made Benoit a two-year deal, but the numbers and the validity of the offer aren’t substantiated as of yet.

Should the Indians pay a closer $7 million a year?

The Indians signed Joe Borowski, a 36-year old who had closed the year prior and saved 36 games, to a two-year, $8 million deal in 2007. No, nobody was going to confuse Borowski for Benoit. Aside from their age and their role, they weren’t the same pitchers, but the Indians were willing to pay him a decent amount of money to close.

The Indians then turned to Kerry Wood in 2008, and signed him to a two-year, $20.5 million deal.

Talk about two extremes.

Since Wood, Chris Perez has been the Indians closer, and went from a cost-efficient, shut down closer, to a cost-prohibitive base-filler.

So I guess my point here is…how much would you pay for a closer of any type on the free agent wire? In Borowski, they received a guy that didn’t throw very hard, saved a ton of games initially, but ultimately was released. In Wood, they received a guy that did throw hard, but was never really healthy, and was never really all that good. It didn’t help that he played on terrible teams either.

Should the Indians allocate $7 million for a pitcher that will get into 60-70 innings a year, when they didn’t pony up $11 million for a pitcher that has a shot at 170-200 innings a year?

I can’t imagine that it’s a smart play for the Tribe at this point, unless they think that they can use him for a year, develop their youth, then flip him for something else either as the year progresses, or after the 2014 season.

Either than that, I can’t see spending this type of money for a closer. Seriously, if they were going to do this, why not just offer Smith the $5 million or so, then move one of your other guys to the closer role.

That’s not even optimal, but it certainly would save them some money.

With the Axford rumors still out there, along with Benoit, my guess is we’ll have an answer to this closer issue in the next few days, whether it be the names mentioned, or perhaps another more cost effective reliever, perhaps in that Rays mold, that won’t cost them an arm and a leg.

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