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Wednesday, the Yankees and Mariners swapped right-handed relievers, Armando Benitez for Jeff Nelson. At first glance, the trade seems like an exchange of headaches, given that Benitez had been erratic for the Yankees and Nelson had recently complained–not without reason–about the Mariners front office and its inability to make a deal at the trade deadline.

At first glance, the Mariners look like the big winners. Benitez is a better pitcher than Nelson, and has been for most of the past five years. Only in 2001 was Nelson clearly superior to Benitez.


              Benitez           Nelson
Year        ARP    ERA        ARP    ERA

2003        8.1   2.92       -5.8   3.32
2002       13.5   2.27        5.6   3.94
2001        9.1   3.77       18.4   2.76
2000       13.4   2.61       16.4   2.46
1999       29.1   1.85        0.2   4.15

Benitez is a free agent at the end of this season, which might normally make him attractive for the draft picks he would bring upon leaving. However, his salary of $6.75 million means that he would have to make a minimum of $5.4 million, and more realistically, at least $6 million in 2004 if offered arbitration. That seems high given he way the market has changed, so the Mariners will probably have to eschew an arbitration offer and not get that added benefit. Nelson is also a free agent after 2003, but more affordable through the arbitration process; he’s making just $2.65 million this year.

Regardless, this is a good trade for the Mariners. They get a pitcher who is a better complement for Arthur Rhodes to set up Shigetoshi Hasegawa, and they improve their bullpen in the likelihood that Kazuhiro Sasaki–who has been ineffective in his rehab work–cannot return to claim an important role. Benitez doesn’t have Nelson’s platoon issues–in fact, he’s dominated left-handed batters in the past–which makes him effective in full-inning outings. The flyball-throwing Benitez is a great fit for the team that plays half its games in a park where fly balls die, and all its games with an outfield that buries them. It wouldn’t surprise me to see Benitez have an ERA below 1.00 over the next two months.

Having Benitez should free Rhodes from the specialist box in which he’s been placed–because of the need to keep Nelson away from left-handed batters–and allow him to get full-inning and multiple-inning work. It’s a better use of Rhodes, who has the endurance and ability to take on a greater role. The Mariners are stronger for this deal.

Despite the superiority of Benitez’s performance record, the deal actually makes sense for the Yankees as well. Most obvious is that Joe Torre has a comfort level with Nelson that he had yet to develop with Benitez. It’s a failing of Torre that he has his favorites, and despite a well-publicized blowup with Nelson over All-Star picks a few years ago, Nelson is one of “his guys,” someone whose abilities he’s familiar with and who he will use in tough situations.

Torre’s lack of confidence in Benitez showed Sunday when he used Mariano Rivera for a fourth straight game, rather than go to Plan B. Rivera, who has become something of a hothouse flower the last few seasons, can’t pitch that often. In past seasons, Torre would have used Nelson, Mike Stanton or Steve Karsay to get those outs and allow Rivera his day off. With Nelson around, Torre has an alternate closer in whom he has confidence. It’s an overall negative–shaping the talent to fit the manager’s whims–but as a practical matter, it’s a good decision by Brian Cashman.

Nelson also gives the Yankees a set-up man who’s a better fit with the other relievers. In the same way that the Mariners now have two guys who should not be used as specialists, the Yankees can pair Nelson with Jesse Orosco to play matchups aggressively in the late innings, with Chris Hammond and Antonio Osuna throwing complete innings and multiple innings in lower-leverage situations. For the first time all season, Torre appears to have a bullpen he can use with the same level of comfort that he’s had in previous years.

The Mariners win this trade, because they get the better player. I’ve been critical of Pat Gillick, but he stepped up and improved the Mariners here, and he deserves credit for that.

However, I think it’s an interesting deal because when you look deeper at it, you see a lot of the small edges that both teams get. It’s not just about trading headaches, or getting away from Benitez’s history; it’s about two general managers making the kind of small move that improves both teams’ chances at a championship.

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