Following two seasons in which he served up 10 and 12 homeruns, Benitez lowered that number in 2002 to 8, while also lowering his ERA to its lowest number (2.27) since his Met debut in 1999. His ability to overpower hitters, with a mid-90s fastball and better-than-average slider and splitter, allowed him to wriggle out of many tight situations, whether self-inflicted or not.
Opponents hit less than .200 against him, while striking out, on average, a little over once per inning. If the Mets had given him more opportunities last year, there is little doubt that he would have saved at least 40 games for the third straight year as the Mets' full-time closer.
Benitez had such a good year last year, that there really isn't much to fault him for. But since he obviously wasn't perfect, there are a few things that stood out. As dominant as Armando was last year, there was still a collective feeling of unease among Mets fans whenever he took the mound, which usually didn't dissipate until the game was over. That's because as difficult as he was to hit, it always seemed as though the hits he did allow came at the most inopportune times.
Very rarely did Armando enter a game and have a 1-2-3 inning. He would usually begin by giving up what seemed to be a meaningless single, or walk, and then get a couple of strikeouts and a fly out to end it. It always appeared as though he would overthrow pitches to the first batter, trying to get his arm loose, before he settled down and handled the task at hand.
If he learns to concentrate on getting the first batter that he faces out, instead of trying to reach 100 mph on the radar gun, he'd significantly lower the chance of heart attack for Mets fans, and manager Art Howe, alike.
What Lies Ahead
1. Can Benitez continue to dominate National League batters? There is no reason to think that he won't. Ever since coming over from the Orioles in 1999, Benitez has been virtually unhittable. Although there was a bit of a spike in his ERA in 2001, he came back with a vengeance last year. Unless he has suddenly lost a few miles off his fastball, Benitez will continue to be one of the top closers in the National League.
2. Will the Mets sign him to a long-term contract this year? Or will he be allowed to walk after this, his free-agent year? GM Steve Phillips is no dummy. Having a dominant closer is essential for a team with postseason aspirations. Having said that, don't expect the Mets to break the bank on Benitez' salary, either. Although he's a proven commodity, there are other closers available, via trade or free agency, who would come cheaper than Benitez.
3. Will impending free agency loom over his season like a dark cloud, or inspire him to even greater things? Benitez knows that he will get his money from somewhere; if not the Mets, then from a team whose only weakness may be their lack of a dominant closer, like the Phillies. Therefore, I don't think that the impending free agency will affect him. Benitez will once again be the dominant closer he's been since coming over to the National League.
Benitez will be the least of the Mets' worries this year. Barring injury, he's good for 30+ saves every year, as long as he gets the requisite opportunities. He'll be called upon by Art Howe to squelch any late-game rallies and nail down victories, as usual. The end-of-games will once again belong to Armando and, as he's shown for the last three years, it should be no problem. Armando will prove once again that he is an elite closer and dominant pitcher in the league.
Cerrone's Certain Facts
From the "Not much of a shock" department...
-- Over the last four seasons, Armando Benitez has allowed 8 HR and has a 4.83 ERA against the Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies, with a 9.31 ERA at Turner Field; however against the Florida Marlins and Montreal Expos, spanning the same time period, Benitez has allowed only 4 HR and allowed a 2.11 ERA.
-- Over the past four seasons, out of Benitez, Mariano Rivera, Troy Percival and Trevor Hoffman, it is Benitez who checks in with the lowest % of blown saves per save opportunity with 9.07%; Hoffman has blown 9.5% of his chances, Rivera 12.3%, and Percival 13.2%.
Matthew M. Cerrone is a MLB research coordinator for NYFansOnly.com
This column is part of a continuing series previewing the 2003 Mets season. Thursday will feature Tom Glavine.