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Tigers Invest Heavily in Joaquin Benoit

How can a team best build a bullpen? We’ve seen different teams try different methods, with varying degrees of success. For the past five days the Marlins have tried one tactic. They’ve made three trades and have received a reliever in each. This resembles the Padres’ bullpen building philosophy, which involves gathering a ton of arms and finding the few that stick. Earlier today we saw the Tigers try a method that more resembles the Yankees’ philosophy. They signed Joaquin Benoit to a three-year, $16.5 million deal that can be worth up to $19.5 million.

Given Benoit’s 2010 numbers, that might appear to be a good deal. The Rays signed him to a minor league deal, but promoted him very early. He made 63 appearances, pitching 60.1 innings, and was nothing but effective. While his 1.34 ERA is clearly not sustainable, his peripherals — including 11.19 K/9 and 1.64 BB/9 — suggest that he could produce high quality seasons in the future. This is something the Tigers need. While their bullpen ranked in the middle of the AL, they did lose a key contributor in Joel Zumaya, whose future is in question. Adding Benoit helps shore up its setup corps.

The problems with this deal arise when we look further back in Benoit’s career. He came up through the Rangers system as a starter, but never made the rotation full-time. The Rangers used him more and more in relief before making the full sitch in 2006. In 2007 he was the organization’s Pitcher of the Year after a season in which he produced a 2.85 ERA with a high strikeout rate and workable walk rate. He also managed to keep home runs down, a useful trait when pitching in Arlington. But those 82 innings took a toll on his arm.

In July 2008 Benoit experienced shoulder soreness and ended up missing more than a month. Upon returning in early August he made 11 appearances and continued pitching well, striking out 16 in 10.2 innings. But after an appearance against Boston on September 7 he was done for the season. It took a full off-season to determine it, but in Spring Training 09 Benoit underwent rotator cuff surgery that would keep him out for at least the first half of the season. It ended up costing him all of 2009.

Benoit did experience arm problems before 2008, too. It was, in fact, the third time he suffered a shoulder ailment. He missed a total of 53 days in 2004 and 2005 because of tendinitis in his rotator cuff. He also missed 21 days in 2003 and 19 days in 2005 with elbow issues. It is understandable, then, that he got only a minor league deal last winter. When a history of arm trouble culminates in rotator cuff surgery that costs a pitcher an entire year, teams tend to back off. Yet Benoit bounced back to a level that few, if any, could have possibly forseen. According to the BIS data, his fastball actually got considerably faster following the surgery.

Does this single bounce back year justify a three-year commitment that will cost the Tigers at least $5.5 million annually? Obviously that will be the case if Benoit produces as he did in 2010 and 2007. But can they at all count on that? We’ve seen so many instances of relief pitchers dominating one year only to flop in the next. We need to look no further than another Rays free agent, Grant Balfour. He had a stellar 2008 before stumbling in 2009 and then recovering in 2010. Given Benoit’s track record, I can’t imagine he produces three stellar years in Detroit. If he doesn’t the contract becomes tougher to swallow.

Last off-season the Tigers let go a reliever who signed a similar free-agent contract. Brandon Lyon pitched well for them in 2009, though his ERA far outpaced his peripherals. This was due, in large part, to a .229 BABIP and 80.8 percent strand rate, two marks he had never come close to approaching in his career. The Tigers let him sign a three-year, $15 million contract with the Astros. To his credit, Lyon had a good year despite a BABIP (.295) and strand rate (74.6%) that were much more in line with his career averages. Scott Linebrink presents another case. The White Sox signed him to a four-year, $19 million contract, but haven’t gotten nearly that level of production out of him.

Benoit does present the same risks as Lyon. His 2010 BABIP was a staggeringly low .201, and his strand rate was 95.1 percent. There is little, if any, chance he comes even close to these numbers in 2011 and beyond. The best the Tigers can hope for, then, is a Lyon-type transition, where Benoit continues pitching well, but not quite as well as he did in his contract year. Even then, it only covers year one. How is Benoit going to fare after another year on his arm? After all, he will be 33 next season.

In a relatively strong right-handed reliever class, Joaquin Benoit stood out. He was a key component of the Rays bullpen in 2010, and he’ll play a similar role in 2011 as he sets up for Jose Valverde. But the Tigers are taking quite a large risk by signing him to such a large contract. We’ve seen it so many times in the past: a relief pitcher has a good year and signs a long-term deal, only to see his production decline. Benoit might be good, but his injury history and unsustainable 2010 numbers suggest that the Tigers have overpaid.