Newly acquired reliever healthy, could be in the mix for saves in '17
By Paul Hagen
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- When the Phillies signed free agent reliever Joaquin Benoit to a one-year, $7.5 million contract in December, a logical -- if indelicate -- question was immediately posed.
How could the team be sure it was getting the right-hander who had posted an 0.38 ERA in 25 games for the Blue Jays, and not the one who opened the season with a 5.18 ERA in 26 appearances for the Mariners?
"He really was two different guys," general manager Matt Klentak said at the time. "But as we drilled down into the data, there are some underlying things that he's always done in his career [which make us] think there's a pretty good chance that he'll maintain [the] level of performance that he's demonstrated over the last handful of years."
Klentak mentioned factors like velocity and strikeout rate, walk rates and batted ball tendencies, all of which are valid considerations. Benoit, however, offered a simpler explanation before Wednesday's rain-shortened workout.
"At the beginning of the season, I had shoulder inflammation," he explained. "I didn't lose velocity, but I wasn't able to locate. I got put on the disabled list [from April 22-May16] and it got better. I got traded right after that, so I guess Toronto got the best of me."
Benoit turns 40 on July 26, but he still throws hard, with a fastball that averaged nearly 95 mph last season. He said the Phillies were aggressive in pursuing him during the offseason.
"I believe that they found they had the need to have a veteran in the bullpen, and I was available and they chased me," he said. "That always feels good. It's not about feeling needed. It's about you being able to help the team, you know? And hopefully that's what I'm going to do."
Exactly how he will help the team remains to be determined. Jeanmar Gomez was the Phillies' closer in 2016 and Hector Neris the lights-out set-up man. Both pitchers are penciled in for the same roles, with the Grapefruit League schedule opening on Friday against the Yankees at George M. Steinbrenner Field.
But if Gomez should falter, Neris could get a chance in save situations and Benoit could move into the eighth-inning role. Or Neris could stay where he is and Benoit could close.
The Phillies signed another experienced reliever, Pat Neshek, last winter. The hope is that both will add leadership as well as depth to the 'pen.
Said Benoit: "I would say it's 50-50. My job is on the field, trying to get my job done as a pitcher. But, at the same time, trying to help the young guys. Trying to keep them focused on doing their job and getting the best out of them."
Paul Hagen is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.