Bullpen remodel begins with Benoit

New general manager Jerry Dipoto is wasting no time in his efforts to improve the Seattle Mariners. One day ago Franklin Gutierrez was re-signed for another year and a deal with veteran catcher Chris Iannetta was reported to be close. Today, reliever Joaquin Benoit has been acquired from the San Diego Padres in exchange for two minor league players.

Since debuting in 2001 and splitting the next three years between the rotation and bullpen, Benoit has been a reliable bullpen arm. He did miss the 2009 season after undergoing rotator cuff surgery, but now has five consecutive years of good health under his belt. FanGraphs’ Jeff Sullivan noted on Twitter that the right-hander is in fact throwing a notch harder than he did ten years ago.

Despite a sub par 2015 in which he saw his strikeout, walk, and home run rates go in the wrong directions, Benoit can still be looked at as an eighth or ninth inning option. He’s posted a pair of sub-2.00 ERA season since returning from surgery and saved 24 games for the Detroit Tigers in 2013.

In the last five seasons there are only two in which Benoit hasn’t produced at least 1.1 fWAR; 2012 and 2015. The common denominator in both? Spikes in his home run per fly ball rate. In 2012 he allowed nearly twice as many home runs per nine compared to his career mark. Pitching in Safeco Field half the time should mitigate some of the home run risk even though he had some struggles pitching in Petco Park last season — a similarly pitcher-friendly environment.

Benoit relies on a fastball-changeup combination similar to that of former Mariner reliever Fernando Rodney. Not to suggest the two share similarities beyond that, but the latter was tremendous in his first season donning blue and teal before disintegrating prior to the end of his second.

The Padres picked up Benoit’s $7.5 million option a week ago so he doesn’t come cheaply. But for a proven veteran on a one-year deal in a relief market that could boon, it’s a reasonable price. More importantly, he takes some of the pressure off Carson Smith as the club’s go-to option in the late innings. Either player is capable of setting-up or closing and it will be interesting to see how first-year manager Scott Servais goes about positioning them in his pen. My guess is that, if nothing else changes, the veteran starts as the closer with the youngster having to take the job away from him.

In exchange for the Benoit, the Mariners are sending two prospects to San Diego: right-hander Enyel De Los Santos and infielder Nelson Ward.

De Los Santos is the more interesting prospect of the two as a power arm with potentially above average secondary stuff. The 19-year old was signed as an international free agent about 16 months ago to a $15,000 bonus. Prospect Insider’s Jason A. Churchill saw De Los Santos pitch in Everett this summer and surmised that he belongs among the organization’s top 20 prospects. Though he is very raw, the right-hander had an impressive professional debut notching 71 strikeouts and 18 walks in eight starts between Everett and Peoria (Rookie League).

Ward was selected in the 12th round of the 2014 draft and finished this past season with Class-A Bakersfield. In 76 games in the hitter-friendly California league he hit seven home runs to go along with eight stolen bases. Ward has the makings of a contact hitter and has primarily played second and third base early in his minor league career. He’ll turn 24 next summer and could begin the year at Double-A for the Padres.

Despite Seattle’s farm system being in a state of distress, the trade doesn’t subtract too much from it. De Los Santos is several years away from the majors but carries enough upside to be an interesting prospect. Ward on the other hand appears to be more of an organizational player.

From the Padres perspective I like this deal. They shed Benoit’s salary while picking up a lottery ticket arm and some minor league depth. For Seattle, filling a position of significant need without dealing any impact talent from the system makes tremendous sense. It could be five years until we see what De Los Santos is for a major league club. The Mariners, and Robinson Cano, Felix Hernandez, and Nelson Cruz, don’t have five years to wait and find out.

Benoit will turn 39 next summer but you can all but count on him for 60 innings of quality high-leverage pitching. After the bullpen implosion of 2015 he should come as a sigh of relief for Mariners fans.

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Tyler Carmont

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