The Mariners' 2015 bullpen was bad. Sometimes it was hurt and bad, and sometimes it was a little unlucky and bad, but it was almost always bad. Fernando Rodney accidentally impaled himself with his own arrow-shaped petard. Danny Farquhar was demoted to Tacoma after a prolonged bout of ineffectiveness. Charlie Furbush's good season was cut short by a bad injury. Tom Wilhelmsen pitched well, but the fact that he was closing at all was a sign of how terribly wrong things had gone. Even Carson Smith, so young and tall and effective against Mike Trout, endured a cycle of peaks and troughs. In 2014, the bullpen's 4.1 fWAR was the fourth highest total in the AL, and ninth best overall; 2015's 1.1 fWAR was one of the very lowest figures in baseball. Improving the pile in the ‘pen was an obvious offseason priority for Jerry Dipoto, and he struck early, trading minor leaguers Enyel De Los Santos and Nelson Ward for Joaquin Benoit and his $7.5 million salary.
Benoit is...mature. He has the look of a man who has seen the world and learned from the 970 professional innings it has offered him. He was first signed in 1996 by the Texas Rangers as a Dominican free-agent. He debuted in 2001, but from day one, he was plagued by injuries. Though rarely serious enough for him to miss significant time, they were certainly an obstacle. His early Baseball Prospectus Annual comments are littered with phrases like "His first full season of pro ball was cut short by a shoulder injury" and "If he can stay healthy," and "There were phrases like ‘biceps tendonitis' and ‘rotator cuff irritation' that can bring someone to worry, but Benoit appears to be healthy coming into the 2005 season."
His early seasons were peppered with the sorts of lessons young pitchers learn. At five innings, he learned walks will kill you. At 194 innings, the disheartening crush of a 16.4% HR/FB ratio imparted its own wisdom. After transitioning to the ‘pen, he had much better luck, both the kind you make for the yourself and the kind the baseball gods bestow. He was able to limit home runs, hemming in his HR/FB ratio after 2004 until it reached a more palatable 7.1% in 2007, his best year with the Rangers. But time waits for no man, and certainly not for his shoulder. An aching rotator cuff turned into a 15-day DL stint, which turned into a longer DL stint, and then finally season-ending surgery.
That could have been it; another failed pitcher whose time came too quickly. Only with Benoit, it didn't. Perhaps a bit later in a pitcher's life than we normally see, Benoit's next lesson was one of the triumph of speed and splitters. Jeff Sullivan wrote an excellent piece on Benoit after the Mariners traded for him. In it, Jeff notes that Benoit's velocity has actually improved since his surgery. The right-hander's splitter is practically unhittable, a devastating pitch that generates strikeouts.
But it isn't just the fastball or the splitter; plenty of pitchers have one or both of those pitches. It's that the combination allows him to be effective against lefties and righties, without posting a significant platoon split. As Jake Mailhot discussed in his piece after the trade, Benoit has been able to limit hard contact, particularly with his secondary pitches. And after spending several seasons backing up established closers, Benoit demonstrated that he can handle closing duties when called upon. His brand of consistency and flexibility is appealing in an overhauled bullpen trying to find its footing. Steve Cishek may be the Mariners closer right now, but Dipoto must feel comfortable knowing that he has such a solid contingency lurking in the setup role. After 2009 Benoit could have been done; instead, he's established himself as one of the most consistently effective setup men in baseball.
Many of Dipoto's acquisitions are obvious regression bets. Steve Cishek. Justin De Fratus. Leonys Martin. None need to have career years for the team to win, but there is an obvious hope (or expectation, depending on how optimistic you are about the roster) that they will find new or renewed success at Safeco. Benoit represents a bet of a different sort; a bet on consistency. Where others need to improve, alter, and fine tune, the Mariners will look to Benoit to remain as he is. The "old man" has shown few signs of slowing down. Father time will come for the 38 year old and his shoulder eventually, but barring injury, there is nothing to suggest that his time is now.
Dipoto traded away young, untested talent to acquire Benoit. In many places, he'll need slightly less young, slightly less untested talent to fill the gaps on a revamped roster. But for his rock in the pen, Dipoto will look to the ageless wonder as an anchor. You can almost see the 970 innings pitched etched across Joaquin Benoit's face. The 2016 Mariners are counting on the lessons he learned from every single one.