Joaquin Benoit was looking for closer money on the free agent market, which is a big reason why the Detroit Tigers didn't make an effort to re-sign him. The 36-year-old reliever found it with the San Diego Padres on Wednesday, agreeing to terms on a two-year contract worth $15.5 million.
Benoit may have gotten better-than-closer money, depending on your viewpoint. He received more with his contract than Grant Balfour got from the Orioles ($15 million over two years). With that salary in hand, the question is whether or not Benoit will be the Padres' closer next season. Benoit pitched well in that role for Detroit, converting 24 of 26 save opportunities. Overall, he had a 2.01 ERA while striking out 73 batters in 67 innings.
However, San Diego already has Huston Street — who's six years younger, by the way — on its roster. This year, he compiled a 2.70 ERA, 46 strikeouts in 56.2 innings and 33 saves as the Padres' closer.
Two numbers could concern the Padres about Street. He posted a strikeout rate of 7.6 per nine innings, the lowest of his nine major league seasons and a drop from 10.8 Ks per nine last season. Additionally, he served up 12 home runs, the most of his career. Consider that Street pitches his home games at Petco Park, the most pitcher-friendly park in MLB, according to ESPN.com's park factors. The Padres' home ballpark was average in home runs allowed per game, however.
Those numbers could be more influential toward who gets the closer role than salary figures. Street is set to earn $7 million in 2014 with a club option for the same salary in 2015. Perhaps San Diego general manager Josh Byrnes just wanted to sign a top-flight setup man with an eye on the following season. Benoit could pitch an eighth-inning role next year and then take over as closer if the Padres don't pick up Street's option, which seems likely.
If that's the case, however, it's strange that Byrnes traded the already less expensive Luke Gregerson to the A's. Gregerson was likely to make nearly $3 million less than Benoit through arbitration, though he could become a free agent after next season.
Maybe Byrnes simply feels Benoit is better than Gregerson. He could be right, as Benoit moves to the National League while pitching in a friendlier environment than Detroit's Comerica Park.
Benoit was less of a flyball pitcher this past season with the Tigers, but over his career, he's allowed more flyballs than groundballs (which has resulted in him giving up big home runs in some seasons). Petco Park will be an easier place for him to pitch under those circumstances. This past season, Benoit had a 1.09 ERA on the road while allowing a .192 batting average and .512 OPS to opposing batters.
Yet isn't it a bit unusual for the setup reliever to make more than the closer in a MLB bullpen? Benoit isn't getting that much more, set to earn $750,000 more than Street next season. But it certainly seems curious, something that might be tipping the Padres' intentions. This could be worth keeping an eye on during spring training and throughout the season to come. Maybe Street's prorated salary will seem OK to any team looking for a closer at the July 31 trade deadline.