CLEARWATER, Fla. - The first time Joaquin Benoit stepped on a major-league mound, Ivan Rodriguez was his catcher. Rafael Palmeiro manned first and Alex Rodriguez played shortstop. The Dominican rookie pitcher allowed homers in his debut to Robert Fick, Randall Simon, and Damion Easley. His ERA did not creep below 5.00 until his fourth season, but that is not what makes Benoit a marvel as he nears his 40th birthday.
"I guess," Benoit said, "I'm one of the lucky ones."
Luck may explain how Benoit, after major shoulder surgery in 2009, discovered that he could throw his fastball harder than ever. For one season, sure. But, a fastball that has averaged 94 m.p.h. for seven straight seasons while Benoit ascended to his status as one of the oldest pitchers in baseball?
"I'm blessed, I guess," Benoit, 39, said. "I try to work as hard as I can. I try to maintain my body as healthy as I can. I've been blessed."
The Phillies paid Benoit, a hulking righthander listed at 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds, $7.5 million because he has aged so well. In the last 10 seasons, according to FanGraphs, only two pitchers have thrown their fastball harder as a 38-or-older pitcher: Billy Wagner, in 2010, and Fernando Rodney in each of the last two seasons.
Last season, even as Benoit squandered half of it, his fastball was a pitch that opposing hitters could not master. He threw a fastball 54 percent of the time. Opponents batted .232 with a .284 slugging percentage against it.
That slugging percentage was the 14th lowest among all big-league relievers last season, according to Major League Baseball's Statcast. Aroldis Chapman, predictably, had the lowest slugging percentage, .194, against his fastball. Zach Britton, a Cy Young candidate, was a tick higher at .195.
Benoit blamed his uneven season (a 5.18 ERA in 26 games for Seattle followed by a 0.38 mark in 25 games for Toronto) on his shoulder. He felt some inflammation last spring, but continued to pitch through the soreness. That, Benoit said, is something he later regretted.
"I took some time off," Benoit said. "Then everything was clicking. Toronto got the best of me."
He admires people such as Arthur Rhodes and LaTroy Hawkins, relievers whose careers lasted into their early 40s, an idea so improbable when a surgeon opened his right shoulder. The second chance, Benoit said, humbled him. He said the Phillies showed interest in him after the surgery, but he opted for Tampa Bay. The renewed interest this past winter caught his attention.
"Early in my career, I never thought I would make it to 10 years," Benoit said. "Now I'm here. I'm just glad that I'm here. I'm thankful that I made it this far and I'm still doing my job."
The Phillies could use Benoit as their closer, a role he last filled in 2013 for Detroit. If not, he'll be asked to record outs in the seventh or eighth innings.
He has another purpose, too. On the first day of camp, Benoit paired with 24-year-old righthander Edubray Ramos. They are throwing partners. Benoit wants to be a resource to Ramos, Hector Neris, and any young reliever who approaches him.
He's old enough to have played with a Hall of Famer. Fourteen years of big-league service time have taught Benoit to pay it forward.
"They should ask questions because that's one of the things the young guys don't want to do, ask questions," Benoit said. "I guess they believe that being veterans, we're going to push them away. But that's not the case. I am trying to give them advice on the field and off the field. There's a reason why I made it this far. If they're smart enough, they will take advantage of that."
Plotting the rotations
Barring injury, the Phillies know their starting rotation - Jeremy Hellickson, Clay Buchholz, Jerad Eickhoff, Vince Velasquez, and Aaron Nola. One of the more intriguing spring story lines is how the rotations below them, at triple-A Lehigh Valley and double-A Reading, are formed.
It is dangerous to project because pitchers break and the moment a team boasts about its pitching depth, that depth is tested. But the Phillies could start the season with a triple-A rotation full of pitchers acquired in trades (Zach Eflin, Jake Thompson, Ben Lively, Nick Pivetta, and Mark Appel) and a double-A rotation that is a bit more homegrown (Elniery Garcia, Ricardo Pinto, Tom Eshelman, Tyler Viza, and Brandon Leibrandt). All 10 of those starters could be classified as prospects, to varying degrees.
Last December, Phillies general manager Matt Klentak said other teams had noticed the Phillies' pitching depth and inquired about a possible trade. That is something the Phillies could revisit.
Updates on three
Edubray Ramos: The Venezuelan reliever bulked up, especially in his upper body, and there is a feeling that he could be a real weapon deployed in the middle innings.
Alec Asher: Expect him to be converted to relief, simply because of a numbers game. He could be a swing man on the initial 25-man roster.
Cameron Perkins: There is no clear favorite for the last bench spot, presuming Chris Coghlan secures a job as the fifth outfielder. Don't count out Perkins, a strong contact hitter in the minors.