It has been a while since we talked about my favorite off-season target, Mr. Joaquin Benoit. Thanks to FreeZo's minor league updates, we've been able to keep tabs on Benoit in Durham. After the latest roster shuffling involving Mike Ekstrom and Jose Lobaton, I feel that the time for Benoit is now!
The time, however, for Jose Lobaton is likely to be short lived. Dioner Navarro will serve his two-game suspension and be back in a few days, ending Lobaton's first run with the Rays before this weekend. At that time, the Rays will call up a reliever to fill Ekstrom's vacated space. Thanks to Major League Baseball's "10 Day Rule," Ekstrom is not eligible to be re-called until sometime in early May meaning someone else from Durham's bullpen is likely headed our way.
I say likely because there is a way that Ekstrom could return sooner. Navarro sat out the last few games with leg soreness*. Should he hit the disabled list in the next two days, Ekstrom could be re-called without wasting an option or waiting 10 days. This may or may not be the Rays' plan, but either way we are getting closer to Benoit's debut with Tampa Bay.
*From what I hear, Navarro has been catching bullpen sessions and doing base running drills just fine.
For those who are out of the loop, Benoit was sent to Durham at the end of spring training to build up arm strength. He hasn't pitched in a major league game since 2008, and did not work back-to-back games this spring. It was the smart move to send him down. Had the Rays kept him up, and Benoit been ineffective due to rust, there would be no fall-back plan. He would have needed to be placed on the DL or subject to waivers to have been sent to Durham. More than likely he would've been claimed.
Since joining the Bulls, he has thrown 9.2 innings while striking out 17 batters in the process. He has worked back-to-back games once. Getting out left-handed batters has been a question mark for the Rays pen so far; Benoit has struck out 10 lefties in Durham.
Of course Benoit has been facing minor league competition and his numbers come with small sample size stipulations, so take them with a grain of salt. When he was healthy, though, Benoit was an above-average reliever; we heard multiple reports of his velocity in the mid-90s this spring, a good sign for his health.
SBN and DRB community member BucWild recently asked me for my expectations of Benoit - both usage and numbers. Looking at his track record, I see no reason why we shouldn't expect a healthy Benoit to toss upwards of 50 innings of 4.0-4.2 FIP** (fielding independent pitching) ball for the Rays.
**FIP is not a predictive stat. It tells us what a pitcher has done, not what they will do. That said, if a pitcher has a history of above-average FIP seasons, then they are considered a good pitcher and one would think the success would continue barring unforeseen changes.
Based on his career strikeouts per nine (K/9) of 8.19, we can expect to see a decent amount of K's from Benoit. In fact, in his previous three healthy seasons (2005-2007) he struck out nearly a batter per inning. He also saw his FIP drop in each of those seasons.
Also expect Benoit to be used against all types of batters. Over his career, Benoit has faced nearly as many lefties (1259) as righties (1326). His overall numbers are skewed by 55 career starts, but his K/9 against lefties is 8.43; for righties it is 7.96. During the last three healthy seasons mentioned above ('05-'07), he had a 3.88 FIP against lefties and a fantastic 3.19 FIP against righties. Once again, that doesn't mean he'll continue to throw sub-4 FIP ball with the Rays, but history shows he can do it on a consistent basis.
Stuff wise, expect Benoit's velocity to be in the low 90s with the ability to touch 94-96. He uses a slider/change-up combo as secondary pitches; I'm assuming sliders for righties and change-ups for lefties. The Rays will likely ease him into the bullpen rotation, but don't be surprised if he becomes a fixture in high-leverage situations before too long.
I'm not 100% sure the Benoit Era will start this week, but willing to bet the Mike Ekstrom Era is definitely coming to a close - if it hasn't already.