Joaquin Benoit got a two-year, $15.5 mmillion deal to pitch for the Padres this week. The signing didn’t make many waves — after all, Benoit has been a very good reliever the last three years. But three years ago, Benoit’s three-year deal seemed like a head-scratcher. Are there any multi-year reliever signings going on right now that we might look back on as favorably as Benoit’s with the Tigers? Are there any past relievers, future closers still on the market? Who’s the next Joaquin Benoit?
First, let’s define a Joaquin Benoit. Coming off an excellent season with the Rays in 2010, he wasn’t without questions. He’d had good strikeout rates, bad walk rates, and iffy health with the Rangers. Well, he’d actually been really good for two out of three years, and it was just 2011 and a shoulder problem that dropped his value. So we’re looking for a setup man with good strikeout numbers and some sort of health or production question that has deflated his value. Ideally, the pitcher has just signed a multi-year deal that makes us scratch our heads like Benoit’s did, but that might be getting a bit granular.
The first name that came to mind was Jesse Crain, maybe because of the Tampa connection. Shoulder problems the last two year are the only negative on the ledger — he’s had great strikeout rates and at least passable control since 2010. In fact, he’s had the 17th-best strikeout rate among relievers over the last two years. He’s a free agent now, too, and he is the same age that Benoit was. It’d be a perfect match… if Crain’s shoulder troubles had been mostly in 2012 and had not resurfaced in 2013. As it is now, we’re looking at 2009 Joaquin Benoit, where Jesse Crain offers a team the chance at a great one-year deal if the pitcher can stay healthy.
Does Carlos Marmol fit the bill? He had some health issues in 2012, didn’t hit the DL in 2013, and put up decent numbers with a small sample in Los Angeles. The problem is that he missed time while not on the DL, didn’t pitch 50 innings, and has league-worst control to Benoit’s ‘iffy.’ Edward Mujica might be the next Koji Uehara, considering their arsenals are so similar, but he doesn’t have the strikeout rate of the current Boston closer and he already closed in St. Louis so he’s also not quite Benoitian.
A couple of lefties come close to fitting the bill but fall short. Boone Logan just got three years from the Rockies after bone spurs in his left elbow led to offseason surgery. Otherwise, he’s had the strikeout rates of a closer the last three years. But while Benoit had a slider and a splitter to counter platoon splits, Logan only throws a fastball and a slider and is not a good pitcher against righties (5.29 career FIP). Matt Thornton has been closer-worth in the past — from 2008 to 2011, only ten qualified relievers had a better strikeout rate — but an abdomen strain cost him time this year. Thornton didn’t quite lead into this free agency with a head of steam though. His whiff rate has halved on his fastball the last couple of years, and that’s almost all he throws.
The best match on the lefty side of the ball is probably Manny Parra. Since moving to the bullpen, Parra has turned into a menace. His slider and splitter both get excellent whiff and grounder rates, his fastball is over 94, and his platoon splits are manageable. Mediocre career numbers — accrued mostly while starting — and a pectoral muscle strain late in the season depressed his value into a two-year, $5.5 million contract. If Aroldis Chapman wasn’t around, though, Parra could close.
What about Chad Qualls? At 35, he’s a bit older than Benoit was when he signed his Detroit deal, but he did just sign a two-year pact with the Astros that included a third year option. His strikeout rates haven’t been closer-worthy for a while, but his whiff rate was above average this year (10.9%, average for an RP is 10.4%), and he finally conquered some health woes with the Marlins last season. Well, the knee problem was in 2009, but the subsequent pain altered his mechanics (in a bad way), and then in 2013, Qualls felt good enough to return to the mechanics that gave him early-career success. The new mechanics made a huge difference to his slider, as the whiff rate nearly doubled and the pitch became more effective against lefties in 2013. Overall, the package is a little different than Benoit’s — his excellent ground ball percentage and control makes up for the lack of strikeouts — but many of the other boxes are checked.
So it looks like maybe Chad Qualls and Manny Parra are this year’s Joaquin Benoits: closer-worthy setup men with some injury concerns being signed on multi-year deals. Since their deals were for fewer dollars than their predecessor’s, maybe the questions haven’t been as loud. But maybe we’ll look back on these two multi-year deals for relievers and consider them worthy, just as we now look back on the Tigers’ acquisition of Benoit.
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