A New Bull For The Pen

The initial reaction from most of the Yankees fans I talk to when they find out that the Yankees traded for Armando Benitez is something along the lines of "Oh, no." Most Yankee fans will remember Benitez as the man that hit Tino Martinez in the back and started a brawl, or for one of his several meltdowns in the Subway Series. But what the Yankees are getting in Benitez is one of the best relievers in the game, and they will almost certainly be pleased when he takes the mound in pinstripes.

The following names have appeared out of the Yankees bullpen this season: Acevedo, Osuna, Hammond, Hitchcock, Reyes, Anderson, Choate and Contreras. Two of them have been good. The rest have been somewhere between "blah" and terrible, with a few too many leaning toward terrible. Let's face it; the Yankees have a bullpen problem.

But what exactly is that problem? Hammond and Osuna are quality arms with good track records. But are they dependable at all times? Most certainly not. Hammond is a soft-tosser. He relies on junk pitches and change-ups to make up for the fact that his fastball can't break 90. Don't get me wrong; he's effective at what he does. He can keep hitters off balance and make them overswing, but he's also very hittable. Osuna throws harder, but he's not anyone's idea of durable having spent two separate stints on the disabled list so far in 2003.

The Yankees needed a power arm in the pen. Someone who can go in, day in and day out and make sure that a Yankee lead makes its way all the way to Mariano Rivera if need be.

Armando Benitez has a power arm. He throws 97 miles per hour consistently. He strikes out batters at a phenomenal rate. In 49 1/3 innings this year, he's struck out 50 batters. And that is a low number for him. In 1999, his first year with the Mets, Benitez struck out a mind-bending 128 batters in just 78 innings. That is a K/9 (strikeouts per nine innings) ratio of 14.77 – a major-league record.

The Yankees know what they're getting with Benitez. They're getting what the media has labeled a head-case. During that game in 1998 when he was with the Orioles, Benitez served up a three-run homerun to Bernie Williams and then hit Martinez square in the back with a pitch. The beaning triggered a benches and bullpen-clearing brawl in which Darryl Strawberry punched Benitez in the head.

The Yankees are also aware of Benitez' apparent dislike of pitching in large situations. On several occasions, Benitez has blown saves against important opponents – like the Braves and Yankees themselves – as well as during the playoffs, where he is just 4/7 in converting save opportunities.

The Yankees – and the media – are also very aware that there is no bigger pressure cooker in sports than in Yankee Stadium under the watchful eye of George Steinbrenner. How Benitez reacts to being in such a heavy spotlight remains to be seen, but I don't think he's going to have a problem.

How else does this affect the Yankees? Their biggest concern besides their bullpen to date was the performance of the bullpen once 162 games have been played. Last season the Yankee pitching staff was tired and worn out by the time the Angels came to town. This season, many feared that the same thing would happen. Benitez almost certainly bolsters the pen for the regular season, but what about in the playoffs?

Benitez's track record in the postseason isn't exactly sterling. He has three blown saves, two of which came in the 2000 playoffs – one against the Giants, one against the Yankees – as well as two losses. But he has also put up good peripheral numbers, including a 3.56 ERA, and 36 strikeouts in 30 1/3 innings. He has also only allowed three career homeruns in the postseason, all in the first round.

Benitez's performance in the postseason remains to be seen, obviously, but he will almost certainly do more to help the Yankees than to hurt them.

This deal was also something of a steal for the Yankees. Particularly in light of what the Florida Marlins paid for to get Ugueth Urbina from the Texas Rangers. The Yankees dealt Jason Anderson – a good pitcher that hasn't shown that he's ready for the majors yet – and two single-A pitchers that are wildcards to get Benitez. The Marlins gave up one of their top prospects and two other mid-range prospects for Urbina.

And what did the Yankees get? A closer who is prone to blowing saves in big spots? Maybe. But what people fail to realize is that Benitez isn't closing in the Bronx. Mariano Rivera is closing in the Bronx. On the other side of the East River/Long Island Sound, Armando Benitez becomes a setup man.

As a setup man, Benitez won't be saddled with the burden of being the last guy on the mound. He will know full well that if he falters, there will be someone waiting in the wings to pick him up. Remember the days in 1996 when Yankee opponents knew they had to get their scoring done before the eighth inning, or they wouldn't score at all? Benitez and Rivera could very well be the next coming of Rivera and John Wetteland.

With the spotlight trained elsewhere, Benitez does still have to worry about one thing: first impressions. Yankee fans are both notoriously loyal and vicious. They already have a bad taste of Benitez in their mouths from the Martinez incident, and seeing him at his worst. Benitez's first appearance as a Yankee will almost certainly come in the House That Ruth Built, and he's going to have to live with that.

If Benitez falters in his very first outing, the crowd will be on him until he proves that he can be better than they think he is. If he comes into a game in the eighth inning with a two-run lead and blows it, he's going to spend the rest of the season trying to make up for it.

If, on the other hand, Benitez comes into a game in the eighth inning with two on and one out and strikes out the opposing team's best hitter to end the threat – something he is extremely capable of doing – Benitez will become a member of the Yankees, officially.


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