On Dec. 4, 2013, the Detroit Tigers held a news conference announcing that they had signed closer Joe Nathan to a two-year, $20 million contract, which all but ensured that setup-man-turned-closer Joaquin Benoit would not be returning to the Motor City. Benoit, who was a fixture in the Tigers’ bullpen from 2011-13, would find a new home with the San Diego Padres, who inked him to a two-year, $15.5 million deal later that month.
In hindsight, signing Nathan instead of Benoit is looking like it could turn out to be a grand mistake on the Tigers’ part. However, at the same time, one can certainly understand why the Tigers were interested in Nathan — and it is hard to fault their logic.
The Tigers were obviously very familiar with Nathan from his days with the Minnesota Twins, where he established himself as one of MLB‘s premier closers and often gave Tigers fans nightmares. Sure, he missed the entire 2010 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery and wasn’t his usual self when he returned in 2011, but he resurrected his career with the Texas Rangers, saving 80 games with a 2.09 ERA from 2012-13.
Since Nathan arrived in Detroit, however, things have hardly gone as planned. Nathan was brought in to help shore up the back end of the bullpen, but he has instead been a continuation of what Tigers fans have endured through years of watching Todd Jones, Fernando Rodney and Jose Valverde.
On Saturday afternoon, Nathan blew his sixth save of the season, spoiling Max Scherzer‘s eight inning, 11 strikeout gem. He has now blown as many saves in one season with the Tigers as he did in the past two seasons with the Rangers combined. His ERA now sits at 5.36 and his WHIP is a lofty 1.55.
Benoit, on the other hand, has flourished in San Diego, pitching to the tune of a 1.71 ERA and a 0.85 WHIP with 55 strikeouts in 47.1 innings pitched. He began the season as a setup man, but assumed the closer’s role after the Padres dealt Huston Street to the Los Angeles Angels.
Benoit is obviously a very versatile reliever, and some may wonder why the Tigers did not bring him back as a setup man even after signing Nathan. However, there was really no reason for the Tigers to re-sign him to be their seventh or eighth-inning guy, given the fact that they thought they would have the 23-year-old flamethrower Bruce Rondon in their bullpen.
Rondon, of course, would later suffer an injury in Spring Training, and it was subsequently reported that he would be undergoing Tommy John surgery and would therefore miss the entire season. Rondon’s injury is just one of many misfortunes the Tigers’ bullpen has suffered in 2014.
There were also rumors earlier this summer that the Tigers might have an interest in having a reunion with Benoit by trading for him, but they ultimately went on to acquire Joakim Soria instead. Soria was shaky in his first few outings as a Tiger and left Saturday’s game with an apparent injury after coming in to relieve Nathan. It will be interesting to see what becomes of that situation.
Obviously, there is no way that anyone could have foreseen the events of this season, but it is beginning to look like failing to re-sign Benoit could turn out to be a fatal mistake on the Tigers’ behalf. Benoit did a fine job after becoming the Tigers’ closer last season, going 24-for-26 in save opportunities, and there is no reason to think that he wouldn’t have continued to do great work in that role.
The one big exception, of course, was the grand slam he allowed to David Ortiz in Game 2 of the 2013 ALCS, but other than that, he was quite reliable.
The Tigers currently hold just a 1.5 game lead over the Kansas City Royals in the AL Central and if Nathan continues to blow saves at this rate, it would hardly be shocking to see the Royals catch the Tigers. It is certainly interesting to ponder where the Tigers might be right now if they would have re-signed Benoit to be their closer and passed on Nathan. Maybe they can still pick him up in a waiver wire deal before the end of August.