Those not familiar with Joaquin Benoit — a demographic subset that includes more than 99.999 percent of the world’s 7 billion inhabitants — might have wondered why Seattle Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto acquired the relief pitcher in a Thursday trade with San Diego for two minor leaguers.
Benoit is 38. The Mariners’ farm system is in need of an overhaul that won’t be accomplished any time soon. Why give up kids for a guy in the last-call phase of a 14-year career?
A general manager does this if he believes that winning in 2016, while girding the organization for the long term, are not mutually exclusive tasks.
During his introductory press conference in September, Dipoto noted that what the Mariners were missing was “general roster depth.”
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He continued: “The bullpen needs to have more layers than it presently has. Through hard work, scouting and the use of proper analytics, you can turn over a couple of rocks here and there and create depth on a roster that allows you to be competitive pretty easily.”
Since arriving in Seattle, Dipoto has turned over enough rocks to qualify as an archaeologist. Gone are manager Lloyd McClendon and everybody on his coaching staff but hitting coach Edgar Martinez. Gone, too, is farm director Chris Gwynn, special assistants to the GM Joe McIlvaine and Pete Vuckovich, and major league scouts Duane Shaffer and Joe Nigro.
Little did we know Dipoto was just warming up.
A week after executing the first trade of baseball’s offseason — a six player deal that brought starting pitcher Nathan Karns, reliever C.J. Riefenhauser and outfield prospect Boog Powell to the Mariners from Tampa Bay — Dipoto went to work on his vow to supplement the bullpen with layers.
Since arriving in Seattle, Dipoto has turned over enough rocks to qualify as an archaeologist.
Benoit (pronounced “Ben-WAH”) is a right-hander who’s enjoyed success against left-handed hitters. He’s durable and under a reasonable contract — one year remaining at $8-million, consistent with the definition of reasonable these days — and though Benoit is not a household name, Mariners fans will come to know all about him around, say, the eighth inning of the 2016 season opener.
Relief-pitching stats, like all stats, can be deceiving. Dipoto, a proponent of analytics, delved much deeper into Benoit’s performance history than his earned run average. But, still, Benoit’s ERA numbers over the past six seasons are lights-out impressive: A 1.34 in 2010, a 1.49 in 2014. Since 2010, he’s produced an ERA higher than 3.00 only once.
A shaky bullpen without an evident anchor was not the only reason the 2015 Mariners failed to contend. The pitching rotation never achieved a semblance of stability. The defense, most notably in the outfield, was subpar. There were too many swing-and-miss hitters in a lineup incapable of manufacturing runs with speed.
But if required to offer a single explanation for the Mariners’ failure to fulfill preseason expectations, I’m pointing to a bullpen that, among 30 teams, finished No. 19 in runs allowed, No. 22 in save percentage, and No. 1 in Stomach-Turning Trauma.
A former reliever, Dipoto understands how a bullpen breakdown has a domino effect on everybody else.
The world-champion Kansas City Royals knew that if they were leading after the sixth inning, they would win. All the Mariners knew with about a sixth-inning lead is that was as tenuous as a wet paper towel.
When virtually every game is that kind of grind, psyches wear down over a 162-game schedule. The psyches of the 2015 Mariners were frayed in the spring, and pretty much shot by the middle of summer.
Seattle’s bullpen makeover remains unfinished business, and should Carson Smith, Tom Wilhelmsen or even lefty Charlie Furbush identify himself as an everyday closer in spring training, it might call for a tickertape parade.
Meanwhile, Benoit will be in the mix to get those crucial, ever-difficult outs in the seventh or eighth inning, and he’s got closer experience. Consistent with Dipoto’s rendering of the bullpen-reconstruction project, Benoit gives it another layer.
“There’s still an awful lot of off-season left,” Dipoto said Thursday. “I don’t anticipate that this will be the last addition we make in our bullpen.”
Ah, yes. A layer to be named later.
John McGrath: firstname.lastname@example.org