Yankees trade Benitez to Mariners for Nelson

Updated: August 7, 2003, 3:16 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

SEATTLE -- Just 2½ weeks after getting him, the New York Yankees traded Armando Benitez to the Seattle Mariners for fellow reliever Jeff Nelson in a surprising swap Wednesday between division leaders.

Jeff Nelson
Nelson

Armando Benitez
Benitez

"It is definitely unusual, but we were both interested in improving ourselves,'' Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said. "Hopefully we did that.''

The deal comes less than a week after the trade deadline. Each team actually claimed the other player, permitting them to make a deal only with each other. Each right-hander is eligible to become a free agent after the season.

Seattle and New York open a three-game series at Yankee Stadium on Friday night.

Nelson criticized the Mariners' front office last week after the team failed to make a major deal at the trade deadline, but was told that wasn't the reason he was dealt back to the team he helped win four World Series championships.

Nelson, a 36-year-old slider specialist, was working out in the weight room in Cleveland when a clubhouse worker came in and told him manager Bob Melvin wanted to see him.

Thurs., Aug. 7
This was a good trade for both teams. Yankees manager Joe Torre never exactly fell in love with Armando Benitez, so sending him to Seattle took care of that issue. He also brought back Jeff Nelson who was an integral part of the Yankees bullpen for years, and helped them win four World Championships from 1996-2000.

Nelson is among the best setup men in the game. He'll complement closer Mariano Rivera quite nicely because he's as tough against righties as he is against lefties. In his career, Nelson has appeared in 47 postseason games and has allowed only 14 runs, and he has only given up three runs in 13 World Series games (all three were against the Mets in 2000). Nelson also had strong comments about the Mariners' not making any trades before the July 31 deadline this year, so he probably picked a good time to leave town.

In Seattle, Benitez is a good fit. Kazuhiro Sasaki has been injured for most of the year and the Mariners' only viable weapons to close down the stretch prior to the deal were Arther Rhodes and Shigetoshi Hasegawa. Benitez is a solid closer, but he's converted only four saves in 10 attempts in postseason action and is remembered mostly for late-season debacles.

The laid-back atmosphere in Seattle should take some pressure off Benitez, who was in a very bright spotlight the past few seasons. Benitez is one of the few closers who can dominate a game. If Sasaki comes back at full strength, along with one of the best starting rotations, this could finally be the year for the Mariners.

"When I got there they told me there had been a trade,'' Nelson said. "Right away, I wondered where?

"When they told me New York, I was very surprised. The big surprise is that they would deal with a rival team.''

Benitez also was caught off-guard.

"I was a little surprised, but I'm all right,'' Benitez said. "I'm not upset. I understand the situation. I like it here, but if you have to go someplace, what can you do?''

The Yankees acquired the hard-throwing Benitez, 30, in a trade with the New York Mets on July 16, but he didn't last long in the Bronx. Now, Nelson will help set up closer Mariano Rivera.

"We weren't looking to move Benitez, but when Nelson's name showed up, it seemed to fit with what we're doing,'' Yankees manager Joe Torre said.

"Nellie's a better fit for what we're trying to do, getting to Mo. That doesn't mean that Benitez isn't as good as Nellie, they just serve different roles,'' he said. "We won with him before, so there are a lot of questions already answered. Nellie's been tough to replace.''

Benitez, a first-time All-Star this season, saved 21 games for the Mets before being shipped across town. He was 3-3 with a 3.10 ERA in 45 games and 49 1/3 innings before the Yankees got him despite his history of big-game failures.

Benitez pitched 9 1/3 innings for the Yankees, going 1-1 with a 1.93 ERA.

"Hopefully, it will be good for him to turn the page on New York,'' Cashman said.

Nelson has pitched for only two teams in his 12-year career -- two stints with Seattle and this will be his second with the Yankees, where he won championship rings from 1996-2000.

The Yankees realize that Nelson often speaks his mind.

"Nellie's Nellie. You get the package, you understand that he says things sometimes and an hour later, he says he didn't mean to say it,'' Torre said.

"When he left, I felt badly that there were rumors that it was because we didn't get along. That couldn't be further from the truth,'' he said.

New York beat Seattle in the AL championship series in 2000 and 2001. Nelson pitched for the Yankees the first time, the Mariners the next year.

"Well, there are a lot of strong right-handed hitters on the Mariners, so I guess that's where I'll be used,'' Nelson said.

As he spoke with reporters, Seattle players passed by and wished him well. Outfielder Mike Cameron gave the pitcher a big hug and said, "See you this weekend.''

Nelson was 3-2 with a 3.35 ERA and seven saves in 46 games for the Mariners.

Nelson was a huge success as a setup man for New York before signing with Seattle as a free agent.

He said he had mixed emotions over this deal, emphasizing that he enjoyed his time in Seattle but also pointing out he is excited about rejoining the Yankees and Torre.

"All that stuff that was written when I left New York was way overblown by the media and especially TV,'' Nelson said. "I never had one bit of trouble with the Yankees or the manager. Never.''

Last Thursday, Nelson ripped into Mariners management for failing to make a major trade before the deadline. A day later, he apologized to the team's top two executives for questioning their integrity by saying he didn't believe they tried to make a deal.

However, he refused to back down on anything else he said.

Nelson later met with Mariners chairman and CEO Howard Lincoln, and team president Chuck Armstrong. Nelson said he did not shake hands with them after their talk.

But the reliever was told Wednesday his comments had no bearing on the trade -- and that Seattle and the Yankees were in discussions even before the July 31 deadline.

"They told me that it was close to happening before the 31st. I guess the Mariners didn't like the players the Yankees were offering then,'' Nelson said.

Seattle closer Kazuhiro Sasaki has been on the disabled list with a fractured rib since June 11.

The Mets traded Benitez to the Yankees for right-hander Jason Anderson and minor league pitchers Anderson Garcia and Ryan Bicondoa.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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