The Tigers liked Joaquin Benoit so completely three years ago they gave him a three-year contract when other teams competing for a right-handed free agent were offering only two. (Robin Buckson / Detroit News)
Detroit — Free-agents-to-be like to say, with glorious diplomacy, they “really want to come back” to their current team.
The difference with Joaquin Benoit is simply explained. He means it. He and the Tigers are at peace a few weeks before Benoit hits the marketplace.
But any future attachment all depends on, yes, business matters. On money. And on contract years. And the Tigers soon will decide if Benoit, 36, is worth offering a new contract that almost certainly will require a minimum of two years.
“I can’t say that’s going be the case, but I can’t complain about the way the Tigers have treated me,” Benoit said, while poking at his iPhone in the Tigers clubhouse Thursday, three hours before the Red Sox and Tigers were to tussle in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series at Comerica Park.
Benoit looked up from his text messages.
“They’ve given me a chance to win a World Series,” he said. “I think they kind of like me a little bit.”
That would be correct. The Tigers liked him so completely three years ago they gave Benoit a three-year contract when other teams competing for a right-handed free agent were offering only two.
They haven’t had any serious qualms about the $16.5 million they invested in a supremely steady reliever who has helped the Tigers win three straight Central Division titles. And even if they would have preferred a different outcome in Game 2 of the ALCS at Fenway Park, when David Ortiz hoisted a Benoit change-up into the seats for a grand slam that set up a Hollywood-brand victory for Boston, Detroit wasn’t bashing Benoit.
In his past three regular seasons in Detroit, Benoit has pitched 205 times spanning 199 innings. He finished the 2013 schedule with a 2.89 ERA and — the key number — 24 saves as he became the answer to a frightful Motown mystery: Who was Detroit’s closer?
Benoit finished games in generally happy ways for him and for his team after he was dubbed the ninth-inning savior at midseason. It all had to do with his bullpen doctor’s kit, which included a 95-96-mph fastball as well as a top-shelf slider that got some help, particularly late in the season, from his change-up.
He walked 22 during the regular schedule, but control wasn’t an issue. He tended to get batters out and to close out games with relatively clean innings.
He also moved gradually into another role: mentor. Benoit had his conversations with Bruce Rondon, the 22-year-old right-hander with a 103-mph fastball who is viewed as Detroit’s eventual closer, perhaps as early as next season.
That depends upon how a couple of issues play out.
Rondon is not on the ALCS roster because of a sore elbow that has shelved him, apart from one appearance, since early September.
Dave Dombrowski, president and general manager for the Tigers, said last weekend in Boston he was “concerned” about Rondon, but that “extensive” medical tests had ruled out anything serious.
But even if Rondon recovers fully — as the Tigers expect — a team that has had too many bullpen headaches in 2013 will want an extra layer of protection in 2014. And that could easily lead them to pursue a new contract with Benoit.
“He’s a young guy,” Benoit said of Rondon. “He has a lot of talent. He’s a young kid with a lot of energy who needs to improve. But everybody goes through that.
“Last year was a little bit too much to handle,” Benoit said, alluding to Rondon’s status as closer-to-be when he showed up for camp in February.
Benoit says he would be pleased to help Rondon ease into a closer’s job for which his skills are almost ideal.
But that, of course, depends on so many things. On the Tigers. On their offer. On the market. And, ultimately, on whether two parties who have been so compatible to date decide this relationship should be extended.