Monday, December 6, 2010

Tigers Sign Joaquin Benoit

After a career of up-and-down performances with the Texas Rangers that culminated with his missing the entire 2009 season after rotator-cuff surgery, Joaquin Benoit signed a minor league deal with the Tampa Bay Rays with an invite to spring training. Benoit always had a decent arm, working in the 91-92mph range and missed plenty of bats. But he had been plagued by injuries and control issues. For the league minimum, the Rays got 60.1 innings of a 1.34 ERA and a 1.5 WAR - just a tick below Rafael Soriano (1.6) and Mariano Rivera (1.7). Suffice it to say, they got their monies worth.

Fast forward to one year later and the Tigers, looking to bolster a bullpen that struggled mightily when injury-prone flam-throwing righty Joel Zumaya went down with a broken elbow, swooped in early to make the first meaningful signing of the 2010-2011 off season. They inked Benoit to a three year, sixteen-and-a-half million dollar deal that ranks as one of the richest ever for a non-closer.

It's a significant layout for a player who has had just one dominant year in his career, with a history of injuries, and it's a deal that comes with obvious pluses and minuses.

Beyond Benoit's obvious talents, the fact that he wouldn't cost the Tigers a draft pick - as other potential options might have - might be his greatest benefit in my mind. Even with the Tigers later moving to sign Victor Martinez, they still could've lost their second round pick - something most analysts view as being worth at least 500K - and perhaps more importantly, something a team with a relatively weak farm system like the Tigers would like to retain. That said, Benoit's as talented as anyone else available and, should he stay healthy, will prove to be a good contributor for the Tigers and reliable bridge to closer Jose Valverde.

History suggests that Benoit will likely not be worth every penny he's going to get paid. That's partly due to the fact that relievers just don't effect enough innings to play major roles on any team. This is particularly true in the case of Benoit, who hasn't been healthy enough to register a season with more than 60 innings since 2007. But it's also because Benoit simply isn't a likely candidate to repeat his success of 2010.

Consider if you will that Benoit set career marks in strikeout rate, walk rate, ground ball rate, and not surprisingly bested his career best FIP and xFIP marks by over a run and a half each. He did so on the back of a .201 BABIP - 90 points lower than his career average. The odds of ANY pitcher repeating such success is pretty much nil, and they're even lower for someone who has never approached such production before while playing at the most statistically volatile position in the game.

As for the contract itself, there are a few different ways to look at it. We can take the simplistic view that the Tigers had a need, and filled it. That in itself should be viewed as a success.We can also look at it in terms of comparative value - how much better will Benoit be than an internal option such as Daniel Schlereth or a cheaper external option such as Koji Uehara?

Finally, we can look at it in terms of statistical value. This of course, is the lense with which I prefer to view the game. If we assume that a single WAR is worth about 4.25m, Benoit would have to be worth 1.29WAR per season make the deal a break-even one for the Tigers. It's not impossible of course - Benoit put together such a stretch earlier in his career when he was contributing 80+ innings per season. But he's not that player anymore and hasn't been for awhile.

When we look at similar long-term deals for middle-relievers - such as those given to Bobby Seay and Scott Linebrink - we see deals that gave long-term stability to pitchers who's long-term impact should've been considered questionable at best. Both of those relievers signed three year deals with their new clubs and have either failed to produce at all (Seay due to injury) or have produced so poorly that their contracts end up being detrimental (Linebrink). In both cases, the acquiring teams likely wish they hadn't made such deals. There is some similarity with Benoit in that regard. He is getting paid quite a bit by middle-relief standards, and he'll be getting paid that way for quite awhile. And ultimately, he is a bit bigger risk than some of his free agent companions.

So what can we expect to see from Benoit going forward? It's a little bit tough to say. On the one hand you have his lifetime body of work, which suggests flashes of brilliance that overall, are marked by an inability to command the strike zone throughout the season. On the other, we have what would appear to be the new-and-improved Benoit - the one who came back from major shoulder surgery pitching like the bionic man.

But if I had to venture a guess (and I guess that's the job you're not paying me to do) I'd project the improved strikeout rate to stick while the walk rate normalizes and ultimately you're left with a player somewhere in between who he was pre-surgery, and who he was last year. In terms of his FIP, I'd expect to see marks in the mid-threes and and ERA that hovers in he mid-to-high threes or low fours which would be a fair amount better than the 4.47 ERA he's accumulated throughout his career.

I'm not completely in love with this deal from the Tigers perspective in the sense that I think it'll ultimately be viewed in a poor light as it becomes apparent that they have equally capable options within the franchise already - be it Zumaya, Schlereth or Ryan Perry. But there is also a chance that this could work out very nicely if Benoit's improved command sticks. If that's the case, he could prove to be an expensive setup man who helps the Tigers bullpen be one of the better ones in baseball.

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