A Mariners bullpen that sported the sixth-worst ERA in the Major Leagues last season received a major boost on Thursday, when veteran right-hander Joaquin Benoit was acquired from the Padres for a pair of low-level Minor Leaguers.
In exchange, new general manager Jerry Dipoto parted ways with starter Enyel De Los Santos and infielder Nelson Ward.
Benoit recently had his 2016 option exercised and is set to make $7.5 million in his final season before he can become a free agent. The 38-year-old has been one of the more consistent bullpen arms since returning from shoulder surgery, posting a 2.35 ERA and a 0.94 WHIP while walking 2.6 batters per nine innings, striking out 10 batters per nine innings and averaging 65 appearances over the last six years.
Dipoto, who pursued Benoit in free agency a couple of offseasons ago while serving as GM of the Angels, called this "both a stabilizing and impact move toward the back end of our 'pen."
"He's obviously nearing 40 years old now, but he hasn't lost his effectiveness," Dipoto said. "He still continues to turn in quality performances year after year. He's been durable and effective in every way. I feel like this was a target for us as we went into the offseason, and I'm very happy that we were able to bring him on board."
Benoit joins the back end of a bullpen that also includes Carson Smith, Tom Wilhelmsen and potentially Charlie Furbush, who missed the last three months of the season with a slight tear in his left rotator cuff.
Benoit also has some experience as a closer, saving 24 games for Detroit in 2013 and 11 games for San Diego in '14.
"Whether it's in a premium setup role or potentially a closing role is yet to be determined," Dipoto said. "But it gives [first-year manager Scott Servais] and [pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre] quite a few options to choose from of high-end, power, strikeout pitchers in the back end of the bullpen."
De Los Santos, 19, was signed out of the Dominican Republic and just finished his first full season in professional baseball, posting a 3.47 ERA in 13 starts for the Rookie-level Mariners and Class A Short-Season Everett. Ward -- a 12th-round pick in the 2014 Draft -- batted .278/.365/.436 at Class A Clinton and Class A Advanced Bakersfield, spending time at second base, third base and shortstop.
Benoit turned in another solid season in 2015, with a 2.34 ERA and a 0.90 WHIP to go along with 8.7 strikeouts per nine innings and a walk rate of 3.2. His fastball has remained steady at an average of 94 mph, and his power changeup -- one Dipoto called "a dive bomb" -- is one of the game's most devastating pitches, which opposing hitters slugged just .181 against in 2015.
Benoit also mixes in an above-average slider, helping him generate a 16.5-percent swinging-strike rate last year (6.6 percent better than the league average).
Seattle's bullpen posted a 4.15 ERA that ranked 25th out of 30 teams this past season.
More additions are expected.
"There's still an awful lot of offseason left," Dipoto said. "I don't anticipate this being the last addition we make in our bullpen."
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On Sept. 3, 2002, Benoit earned a seven-inning save -- the longest in the history of the statistic -- in a game against Baltimore. The righty won't be doing that again, but he appears poised to close for the Mariners in '16 following a November trade from San Diego. This deal will likely do wonders for Benoit's fantasy value, as he is going from a team with Craig Kimbrel to one on which he will be the man. Nobody will mistake Benoit for Kimbrel, of course, but Seattle's presumptive stopper can certainly hold his own. Look for him to notch 30-plus saves with a sub-3.00 ERA and a strikeout per inning in '16, which would make him a No. 2 closer in mixed leagues.
Seattle relievers Carson Smith (eight saves in 2015) and Wilhelmsen (13 saves in '15) both take value hits on the deal, as they had been the likeliest options to close. Now, both are waiver-wire fodder outside deep AL-only formats. San Diego's Kevin Quackenbush could end up benefiting at some point, as he now appears to be next in line to close should Kimbrel become unavailable.