November 17th, 2010

Tigers adjust to the market on Joaquin Benoit

Dave Dombrowski has never been an outspoken flagbearer for general managers who don’t like overpaying for setup relief. In light of his pending three-year deal contract with Joaquin Benoit, that’s probably a good thing.

Still, Dombrowski’s track record speaks for itself. In his first nine seasons as Tigers general manager, he never signed a non-closing free agent reliever to a multi-year deal. Detroit signed Danny Patterson to a three-year, $7 million extension in January 2002, but that’s generally regarded as a Randy Smith contract, before Dombrowski took over as GM but after he had come in as team president/CEO. That deal went bad in less than six months, when he underwent elbow surgery. Total appearances Patterson made in those three years: 62, two more than he made in 2001 before signing the deal. Detroit also signed Fernando Rodney to a two-year deal a few years ago, but that was to avoid arbitration.

After the Tigers’ World Series run in 2006, they watched left-hander Jamie Walker leave for a three-year, $12 million contract and replaced him with Bobby Seay. They never offered Fernando Rodney more than a one-year deal last winter before he left for the Angels and a two-year, $11 million contract. They were willing to discuss a two-year contract with Brandon Lyon, but didn’t come anywhere close to the three-year, $15 million deal he signed with Houston.

Dombrowski never railed against those deals, never talked about the dangers of it. He simply stated it was further than the Tigers were willing to go.

“He got a three-year deal, and we’re very happy for him,” Dombrowski said of Lyon’s deal at last year’s Winter Meetings. “We liked him, but we weren’t prepared to do that.”

The thought process, what goes unsaid, was that those deals weren’t a good investment for them, not for seventh- and eighth-inning guys. There were too much changeover from year to year to do that.

The Tigers did everything they could to try to avoid having to go there. They stuck to their guns on not giving Lyon a multi-year contract when they first signed him two years ago. They went big on relief arms in the 2008 Draft, topped by first-round pick Ryan Perry. They added Phil Coke and Daniel Schlereth in their big trade last winter.

Now, the Tigers are going that far and then some — at least a half-million dollars more on average per season than what Lyon got — to sign Benoit. The fact that they’re going there says what kind of year it was for the Tigers bullpen.

Joel Zumaya fired away with his 100 mph fastball and mowed down hitters for half a season before suffering another catastrophic arm injury. Perry never really showed the progression the Tigers hoped to see in his second Major League season. Bobby Seay, Zach Miner and prospect Cody Satterwhite had season-ending surgeries.

The result was Leyland saying the Tigers’ need for relief help was as big as their need for offense this offseason, and Dombrowski saying they could use a Brandon Lyon type of reliever. In a year when the Tigers have more payroll space to spend than any other season in recent memory, this has all the looks of an adjustment to the market.

But if you’re going to do it, you might as well do it for the best guy on the market. Benoit quietly dominated hitters in Tampa Bay with numbers that pop off the page. Add in the fact that he was coming off rotator cuff surgery that cost him all of 2009, and it’s nothing short of incredible.

Truth be told, I voted Benoit for AL Comeback Player of the Year over some far bigger names. The combination of the numbers he posted, the way he pitched and the injury he overcame was too good to avoid. Everybody I talked to — scouts, players and other officials — backed it up. This type of comeback just doesn’t happen. The fact that he came back this good, throwing in the mid-90s again, clearly convinced the Tigers — who had looked at him last winter — that he was worth the investment.

In a strange way, in fact, Benoit’s injury actually helped him on the market. Since he missed 2009, he didn’t have the numbers to qualify as a Type A free agent. So instead of having to give up a first-round pick to sign him, the Tigers don’t have to give up anything. Tampa Bay will get a supplemental pick for their trouble. The Type A free-agent relievers will most likely have to wait until the end of the month, when their former teams have to decide whether to offer them arbitration and set themselves up for the compensation draft pick.

I don’t know if Benoit will stay healthy by the end of the deal, when he’ll be 36 years old and a veteran of 12 Major League seasons. I’m sure the Tigers are serious enough about making sure he’s healthy and checking out his medical reports that it explains why they haven’t announced the deal yet. But if he’s healthy, even if he doesn’t dominate the way he did this year, he finally shores up the eighth inning for Detroit.

The Tigers adjusted to the market. Because while Benoit was going to get a long-term deal somewhere, Dombrowski and Leyland need results to get their contracts, too.