Padres' Benoit continues to defy Father Time
PEORIA, Ariz. -- A year of inactivity following surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff in 2009 gave Joaquin Benoit ample time to examine his Major League career -- what he liked, what he didn't like and what he wanted for himself in the future.
That is, if he still had a future in the big leagues.
"Coming off the surgery, I was wondering what would happen next," Benoit said.
It was a fair concern, as Benoit was 31 at the time of his surgery. He had a 4.79 career ERA spanning parts of eight seasons with the Rangers, and had struggled to a 5.00 mark in 2008 before sitting out all of '09.
"It crossed my mind a couple of times that I might be done," Benoit said.
At his current rate, Benoit might never be finished, as he not only recovered from his surgery, he has transformed himself into a lights-out, late-inning reliever, with 2.53 ERA and a gaudy 10.24 strikeouts per nine innings recorded over the last four seasons. And he actually had an uptick in velocity a year ago.
Here's the kicker: Benoit has done all of us at time when pitchers are often regressing, sometimes to the point where high-leverage innings or just innings in general for pitchers in their mid-30s just don't exist.
"To give a multiyear deal to a reliever who is 36 is certainly not the norm," said Padres general manager Josh Byrnes. "But he's had four such good years in a row -- performance, pitching in key spots, his stuff is as good as ever."
The Padres, who typically don't wade deeply into free-agent waters, spent $15.5 million for two years of Benoit, a pitcher who will turn 37 in July but has shown no signs of slowing. If you didn't know it, you'd think he was closer to 26 than 36.
"I don't know about that," Benoit said, smiling. "It's been a long time since I was 26. But I do feel good. I don't know how long I'll keep playing. Time will tell me when it's time to go. When it's time to go, I'll go. But right now, I feel good. I feel blessed to still be playing."
This was the sentiment Benoit had in 2010. After surgery, he was able to do some rehabilitation with the Rangers, but when he became a free agent, he went to his home in the Dominican Republic and his rehabilitation essentially diminished.
Benoit signed a Minor League deal with the Rays in February 2010, and the Tampa Bay training staff went to work to help him rehabilitate his shoulder. He scuffled in Spring Training, posting a 5.79 ERA. On the last day of camp, the team sent him to Triple-A Durham to continue to build his arm strength.
"It was either go to Durham or try to go somewhere else," he said. "So I went to Durham."
Only Benoit wouldn't stay that long. In the span of a scant few days off from throwing, he suddenly regained the mid-90s fastball that he showed during his days with the Rangers.
"When I got to Durham, my velocity was 87, 88 mph," Benoit said. "The day of my first game, I was more worried than nervous. I knew whatever that I did that day would dictate if I would go to the big leagues or stay there. I remember after warming up, one of the guys told me my arm looked looser and the ball was coming out pretty good."
It was April 8, 2010, and Durham was in Norfolk. Benoit came out of the bullpen and struck out six of the eight batters he faced in two innings. Benoit glanced up at the scoreboard in left-center field at Harbor Park and saw numbers he hadn't seen in a long time.
"It said I was throwing, 95, 96 mph," Benoit said, grinning. "I guess the time off helped."
Benoit hasn't had much time off since. He posted ERAs of 1.34 and 2.95 for the Rays in 2010 and '11 before joining Detroit for the '12 season. Benoit pitched to a 3.68 ERA in his first season with the Tigers and posted a 2.01 mark with 24 saves a year ago. He has made 63 or more appearances in each of the last four seasons.
"I guess that I'm still trying to prove myself," he said.
It took a while, but Benoit found his niche. And, you can safely say that he's been far better in his 30s than in his 20s, when he was still pretty raw and, in his opinion, not utilized properly while with the Rangers.
"They were saying I was inconsistent. But I can't see a way where anyone can be consistent when you're succeeding in one role and they switch you to a different role," said Benoit, who bounced from rotation to bullpen in Texas. "That's kind of unheard of. I think if you're doing well in one spot, in one role, leave me there."
That's what the Padres intend to do this spring, as Benoit will handle the eighth inning and set up for closer Huston Street. But Benoit gives the Padres protection in case Street lands on the disabled list, as he has three times in the last two seasons.
And, unlike other late-inning relievers the Padres pursued this winter, Benoit never insisted on closing. Instead, he wanted something else.
"His sole purpose is to be part of a winning situation. He wants to help the team win. He doesn't have a huge ego. For us, that was very gratifying," said Padres manager Bud Black. "There were a lot of teams on this guy. He's good. He worked out a deal with us. He wanted to be part of a good bullpen."
Byrnes never got the impression that Benoit's decision to come to San Diego was about a cash grab. Benoit reached out to Byrnes and the team more so than other free agents. Benoit shares the same agents, Seth and Sam Levinson, as pitcher Jason Marquis, who gave the team and the coaching staff and front office high marks.
"He did his homework on us. It was interesting process. We talked a lot. He really wanted to know about our roster and organization," Byrnes said. "He chose us eyes wide open."