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Closer agrees to reported $21M contract

SAN FRANCISCO -- Free agent Armando Benitez and the San Francisco Giants agreed to a three-year contract Tuesday, a move that stabilizes the club's closer role that's been in flux since Robb Nen got injured two years ago.

"He's the prototype," general manager Brian Sabean said. "He
has been and will be a dominant force at the end of the game. ...
He's a guy we had our eye on."

Benitez bounced back from a subpar 2003 season to save an
NL-leading 47 games in 51 chances and lead major league relievers
with a 1.29 ERA for the Florida Marlins this year. His signing
fills one of the Giants' biggest offseason needs.

Since Nen was sidelined with a serious shoulder injury following
the 2002 World Series, the Giants have pieced together their
bullpen. Tim Worrell closed in 2003 before leaving for Philadelphia
as a free agent and San Francisco struggled at the end of games
last season.

Matt Herges started the year as closer before being replaced by
Dustin Hermanson in August. Hermanson saved 17 games but couldn't
hold a three-run lead on the final Saturday of the season against
Los Angeles, helping cost San Francisco a playoff berth.

"I'm excited he's on our side," manager Felipe Alou said. "We
had to make a change in the middle of the season and it was not
easy. Our guys did a tremendous job saving the games. ... We have a
guy who has been very successful and an intimidating closer."

Hermanson is a free agent and is unlikely to return to the
Giants, Sabean said, because he would like to close or start next
season.

The Giants previously signed shortstop Omar Vizquel to a $12.25
million, three-year contract and will turn their attention to
upgrading their lineup around NL MVP Barry Bonds.

"We wanted to fill this need so we could move to other areas to
address what we could do in the lineup or outfield," Sabean said.

Benitez is an intimidating presence on the mound and is one of
the game's most overpowering pitchers, striking out 826 batters in
654 innings.

But while Benitez has been one of the game's top closers in the
regular season with 244 saves in 283 chances -- the fourth best
percentage all-time -- his postseason history is spotty.

He has blown six of 10 postseason save opportunities -- a major
league record -- with Baltimore and the New York Mets, including the
opener of the 2000 World Series against the Yankees and Game 2 of a
first-round playoff series that year against San Francisco.

"He's 32-years old and has learned a lot from his experience,"
Sabean said, adding that in this postseason "people with greater
reputations proved they're fallible.

The Yankees' Mariano Rivera, the best postseason closer ever,
blew two saves in the ALCS against Boston, contributing to New
York's collapse after taking a 3-0 lead in the series.

Benitez also gave up three game-winning hits in the 1997 ALCS
for Baltimore against Cleveland and gave up the infamous Jeffrey
Maier home run in the opener of the 1996 ALCS against the Yankees.
In that game, a 12-year-old boy reached over the wall to get a
drive by Derek Jeter. The Yankees beat Baltimore that afternoon and
in the series.

Despite his postseason troubles, pitching for a team that is in
contention every year was a big attraction for Benitez.

"The quality of the team excited me the most," he said in a
statement released through the team. "The possibility of this team
competing for the playoffs caught my attention the most."

The Giants would not release the breakdown of the contract but
assistant general manager Ned Colletti said the deal was
backloaded, with a signing bonus spread over five years and the
salary rising each season.

"Without that we would have had a real tough time folding him
in," Colletti said. "They're willingness to work with us was the
key to getting it done."