Contract official, Benoit tries to fit right in with Nats bullpen

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - Joaquín Benoit has played for good teams and bad teams. He has appeared in 20 postseason games (three of those in the World Series) and he’s played out the string in September for clubs that were going nowhere.

Now 40, with far fewer days ahead of him than behind him, Benoit’s priorities have changed. When looking for a job this winter and spring, he sought only two things: a major league contract and a chance to win. That made the Nationals, who officially announced the right-hander’s signing to a one-year, $1 million contract today, an ideal destination.

benoit-nats.jpg“Look around,” Benoit said, scanning a clubhouse featuring All-Stars, award-winners and proven big leaguers left and right. “This is the team. This is not about going to a place and being miserable. This is about going to a place and being comfortable and having a chance to go to the playoffs and contribute.”

To clear a spot on the 40-man roster for Benoit, the Nats placed Joe Ross (who won’t be ready to return from Tommy John surgery until July at the earliest) on the 60-day disabled list.

Though the Nationals haven’t flat-out said Benoit is assured of a spot in the opening day bullpen, it seems like close a sure thing at this point, especially after Koda Glover reported to camp with a recurrence of the shoulder pain that plagued him most of last season.

Ryan Madson and Brandon Kintzler are locked into their setup roles, and Shawn Kelley will make the club if he’s healthy, but there’s no other right-hander in camp with a track record like Benoit, who is positioned to fill one of the remaining bullpen roles.

Benoit was among the most reliable relievers in baseball from 2010-16, posting a 2.40 ERA, 0.977 WHIP and 43 saves in 439 total appearances with the Rays, Tigers, Padres, Mariners and Blue Jays. But after signing a $7.5 million contract with the Phillies last season, he struggled to maintain those results.

Pitching out of a Phillies bullpen with an ever-changing carousel of closers, Benoit had a 4.07 ERA in 44 games. Things bottomed out following a July 31 trade to Pittsburgh, where he was roughed up for nine runs and 11 hits in 8 1/3 innings and appeared in only one game after Aug. 21 due to personal reasons.

Benoit was vague about the circumstances surrounding the abrupt conclusion to his 2017 season, but he made it clear his mind wasn’t entirely on baseball.

“I will say I don’t normally talk about things like that, but there was a lot of personal stuff going on last year,” he said. “I can’t blame that, because the game is played the same way for hundreds of years. But it was a lot of things on my mind. Like I said, I don’t like to make excuses, but things didn’t go the way I planned or the way I wanted them to go. Stuff that happens.”

Beneath the surface of his subpar numbers, though, were encouraging signs. For one, Benoit’s fastball velocity (94.8 mph, according to FanGraphs) was the highest of his career. His peripheral stats, meanwhile, suggested he was a victim of some bad luck.

Benoit is confident he still has the stuff to get big league hitters out.

“I would say I’m blessed to a point that I’ve been consistent in my velocity from my (2009 shoulder) surgery until now,” he said. “Which is something that you don’t really expect from anybody, even if you wanted to. But with me, I don’t even know. I would say I’ve got God’s touch.”

Benoit was throwing on his own in the Dominican Republic before getting the call from the Nationals to come to West Palm Beach over the weekend for a workout. Since agreeing to his $1 million deal on Monday, he has eased right in with the rest of the pitching staff, participating fully in drills and already throwing off the mound.

Now he just hopes to rediscover his earlier form over an entire season with the ninth employer of his career.

“I’m going to do my best,” he said. “I’m really confident, and I’m happy to be here. The atmosphere here is unbelievable, and you’re seeing a team that is possible to be in the World Series. This is a great team. If you see the starting rotation, the bullpen, the hitters ... what can go wrong?”

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