Many teams' bullpens change from year to year, but the Yankees' bullpen appears destined to have an overhaul unlike any they have had in years. For the first time in 17 years, they will have a new closer going into Spring Training. In fact, Joe Girardi recently told Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Barbarisi that the only "sure things" to be in the bullpen for 2014 are David Robertson, Shawn Kelley, and Preston Claiborne. Teams typically carry seven-man bullpens, so there are several more spots to fill in the 'pen, and frankly, they can do better than Claiborne and his 6.53 second half ERA third on the depth chart.There are only so many internal options at the moment aside from rotation candidates David Phelps and Adam Warren. David Huff is a lefty but not particularly impressive, and although Dellin Betances and Cesar Cabral are intriguing, they have only pitched about 11 combined major league innings.
Back at the start of '97, the Yankees' bullpen already had some solid pieces in Rivera and Jeff Nelson (among others), but they signed veteran lefty Mike Stanton to a three-year, $5.45 million deal. That contract worked out pretty well, as Stanton became a bullpen fixture for the next six years. Now, they might be seeking a similar free agent import to supplement the current bullpen core. Bob Nightengale revealed the Yankees' offseason goal for the bullpen along with a particular name they could pursue:
The #Yankees would love to grab two relievers and have had lots of internal discussions about Joaquin Benoit— Bob Nightengale (@BNightengale) December 11, 2013
Benoit is 36 years old and has taken a very interesting career path. A native of the Dominican Republic, he signed and eventually debuted with the Texas Rangers as a starter in August 2001. He started 46 of his first 71 games with underwhelming results. In 2005, the Rangers used him out of the 'pen 24 times, and he pitched to a 1.30 ERA with a 0.888 WHIP and 9.1 K/9; in his nine starts, his ERA approached six. That effectively ended his starting career. He sandwiched an excellent season in '07 (61 ERA-) between two mediocre ones in '06 and '08, then underwent rotator cuff surgery in early '09 to address the shoulder soreness that plagued him during his rough '08.
At age 32 with middling success and a full season on the DL behind him, the Rays picked him up off the scrap heap in February 2010 for a mere $750,000. It was the type of low-cost gamble on a bullpen arm that the Rays' pitching coaches have had great success with over the past several years, and Benoit was no different. He seemingly came out of nowhere to dominate the American League in 2010. Featuring a mix of a 94-95 mph fastball with a devastating changeup about 10 mph slower and the occasional slider, he pitched to a 1.34 ERA (34 ERA-), a 2.43 FIP (61 FIP-), and struck out 75 batters in 60 1/3 innings versus just 10 walks. Opposing batters only hit .147/.189/.265 against him, and the bullpen duo of Benoit and closer Rafael Soriano helped the Rays win the AL East. Hitting the free agent market at his highest value yet, Benoit jumped to the Tigers to set up for Jose Valverde on a three-year deal worth $16.5 million.
Multi-year free agent contracts for relievers are always risky, but this three-year pact with Benoit worked out pretty well for Detroit. Over the past three years, he's pitched to a 2.89 ERA (70 ERA-) and 3.39 FIP (82 FIP-), posting impressive rates of 9.9 K/9, 2.8 BB/9, and a 1.075 WHIP in 199 total innings. The Tigers have won three AL Central titles in a row, and Benoit was Jim Leyland's most consistent reliever, given Valverde's implosion. The closer's collapse in 2012 led to an opening for the position at the start of 2013, but strangely, Benoit was not given a legitimate shot until the end of June. Benoit took the opportunity and ran with it to the end of the season, finishing 2013 with a 2.01 ERA (49 ERA-) and a 2.87 FIP (71 FIP-), converting each of his first 22 save opportunities before blowing a couple meaningless games in late September when the Tigers already had the division title wrapped up.
Benoit's playoff year was not a pretty sight, but that can be chalked up to small sample size weirdness--after pitching to a 1.62 ERA in his first 16 2/3 playoff innings from 2010-12, he was probably due for some regression. Unfortunately for the Tigers, that regression came in the form of three strong appearances (highlighted by clinching the opening and closing games of the ALDS victory over the Athletics) and three bad appearances (marred by the game-tying David Ortiz grand slam in Game 2 of the ALCS). Now, the righthander is a free agent again, and with new closer Joe Nathan, Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski has said he expects Benoit to sign elsewhere. Injuries are not a concern, as Benoit hasn't hit the DL since the rotator cuff surgery almost five years ago. Are the Yankees right to pursue him?
Although he has closing experience, one plus that Benoit has going for him that the Yankees might like is that he doesn't seem like the type of guy who would demand to be closer over Robertson, the likely heir to Rivera's throne. Keep in mind that this video link could very well just have been Benoit putting on a team-friendly face for any future employers, but he did mention that he recognizes teams don't often turn to guys in their mid-30s with no closing experience to be their closer as the Tigers did in 2013. He said that if he did return to Detroit and they wanted him to set up for youngster Bruce Rondon in 2014, he would be amenable. If this is true, then it seems unlikely that he would cause a scene about not wanting to set up for the much more experienced Robertson. (I can't imagine fellow free agent Grant Balfour would be as accommodating since he's now saved 62 games over the past couple years.) He could even provide an alternative and some competition for the closing gig in Spring Training, as the Yankees might desire to keep Robertson on edge. Either way, having a reliever with as much experience and recent success as Benoit could be a boon for a team whose bullpen is not especially strong at the moment.
A slight concern on Benoit's record can be observed in his slowly rising walk rate since that phenomenal 2010. Over the past four years, his BB/9 has gone from 1.64 (2010) to 2.51 (2011) to 2.79 (2012) to 2.96 (2013). All things considered, the past three years aren't terribly different from each other, but it's something to watch. A walk rate around 3.0 would still have been better than half of all qualifying relievers last year anyway, so as long as Benoit can stem the small increases, he should be fine. His fly ball rate of 38% was also 49th-highest out of 135 relievers, so that should be taken into account However, Kelley's was even higher last year though at 45%, so it's not as though Benoit would be doomed pitching half his games at Yankee Stadium.
Like Kelley, Benoit also gets more than his share of strikeouts to work out of jams; he ended 2013 with a +3.85 WPA, the fourth-highest total for MLB relievers. It should be noted that similar to RBI, WPA for relievers should be taken with a grain of salt according to Baseball Prospectus writer-turned-Astros statistician Colin Wyers since the relievers do not control the circumstances of the game before they enter it, but it's still comforting to know that when inserted into these tough situations, Benoit got the job done far more often than not. His strikeout potential has helped him in these efforts, inducing a swing and a miss on 13.6% of his pitches. Benoit's greatest weapon is his changeup, which was worth a remarkable 4.9 runs above average last year by Pitch F/X measures. It induced a swing a miss 24.7% of the time, like here:
Spot-on location and a wicked dive. Would not say no to adding another nasty pitch in the bullpen to go along with D-Rob's curveball.
MLB Trade Rumors estimates that Benoit might earn a deal of about $16 million for two years. He has reportedly received an offer worth multiple years at an average annual value of $6-8 million (two years, $14 million?). While that seems a little high, it wouldn't be too bad for a reliever who's been as durable and productive as Benoit. Obviously you would want to pay less for a reliever, but hey, that's free agency. If the Yankees want to dip into the market to improve the back end of their bullpen, Benoit would be a pretty solid overall choice, superior to most of the alternatives on the market. Bring me his changeup.