When Joaquin Benoit was acquired in a trade with the Padres, we were expecting a quality veteran setup man to bridge the gap between the unknown and Steve Cishek. Since returning from injury in 2010, Benoit had quietly been one of the best relievers in baseball, and even at age 38 all seemed well...until the demons came a knocking for a soul.
Benoit has dealt with injuries this year, but he's also dealt with general ineffectiveness. Benoit has his lowest strikeout rate since returning in 2010 -- which isn't a big deal in and of itself, and could be expected due to aging, but he also has his highest walk rate in that span, and it's that poor combination that has led to a 5.30 ERA and a 5.20 FIP despite a BABIP in the .250s.
While ineffective, the Mariners haven't been willing to budge on Benoit's usage. He appeared in a key spot last night against the Orioles and allowed two earned, forcing Cishek to come in during the 8th. Granted, there's not a great deal of options available at this point, but the team needs to try something else in the late innings, because Benoit isn't working.
Mike Montgomery has been the M's most effective reliever, but he's still much better against lefties than righties, and he's better utilized as a multi-inning fireman than a set late-inning setup guy. Vidal Nuno certainly isn't the guy, and while Nick Vincent has flashes of extreme competence, he's injured and shouldn't be turned to in key moments. Tom Wilhelmsen has the experience in the late innings, but he's been beyond bad this year, and we're probably a month of good outings away from trusting him to do anything of value.
Edwin Diaz has the stuff of a shutdown closer or setup man, but his background as a starter makes him more valuable as a fireman who can work for a couple innings if needed. However, if Wade LeBlanc is moderately effective for the next couple weeks before Felix Hernandez returns, the M's will also have Nate Karns available to fill the right-handed multi-inning role, which could free Diaz up to take over in key moments. Does the team feel comfortable handing the eighth inning over to a 22-year-old who's been a reliever for all of two months now, though? He's proven he can be electric, but is still inconsistent as should be expected.
That's what it comes down to: comfort and trust. Manager Scott Servais has to feel comfortable with how he deploys his bullpen arms, and none of the guys outside Benoit and The Bartender have past experience with a late-inning role. While there should be a willingness to shift assets around to find the best combination, you really can't expect the club to get excited about turning to arms they feel are unproven. The fans have had enough of Benoit giving up runs in the late innings, and one would hope Servais and Jerry DiPoto are coming to the same conclusion. The road ahead is rough and unpaved, but it's better than sitting in the sinkhole praying for deliverance.