What has happened to Andrew Benintendi?
Of all the questions being thrown about regarding this out-of-the-ordinary baseball season and Boston baseball team, this one has jumped to the top of the list. Sure, J.D. Martinez and Rafael Devers haven't been themselves. And, yes, figuring out who is going to take up three of the five spots in the rotation has become a fun guessing game. But all if it pales in comparison to the Benintendi conundrum.
This is a player who was on his way to All-Star status in many peoples' eyes as recently as a season ago, and now? He sits with the worst batting average in the major leagues (.056), going 2-for-36 to start 2020.
So we asked:
"He's had that uppercut swing that can cause him trouble with the ball up and that continues. Love to see him try and work down through the ball as opposed to what he's doing now. But aside from that, at the moment it appears to be a timing/confidence issue. He's not getting his foot down on time and he's late to the ball. He's also not staying behind the ball. Needs to get his Fenway swing back, think opposite field. Too much dip and rip, pull swing right now."
"Timing looks way off. Late on fastballs and out front on off-speed. Seems to go back and forth with using his leg kick and ditching it. Tough to hit if you're thinking about that stuff. Also, dropping his back knee and hooking ball 100 feet foul is another example of erratic timing and lack of balance."
HITTING COACH TIM HYERS
In the short-term, the issue the left fielder's slump offers the Red Sox is one less offensive option they thought would be a fail-safe coming into the season. Yes, the overall takeaway from 2019 was that it resembled a step in the wrong direction. But there were signs of the player so many were high on, such as a mid-summer run starting in late July that saw him hit .338 with a .985 in 34 games.
Much of the inconsistency, particularly in the first few months of 2019, was chalked to a player who had bulked up too much, was miscast in the lineup, and had abandoned a batting approach that got him to the majors. It's why the Red Sox had no problem counting on him in 2020, going so far as to make him that leadoff guy once again.
They even signed him to a contract extension instead of just defaulting to the year-by-year arbitration path, committing two years, $10 million with the outfielder scheduled to make $6.6 million in what would be his second year of arbitration.
Now? A team with a very uncertain future has one unexpected question mark.
The blueprint for 2021 seemed fairly certain. Jackie Bradley Jr. is most likely testing the free-agent waters, paving the way for prospect Jarren Duran. And with the semi-proven commodities, Benintendi and Alex Verdugo, locked up in left and right field, respectively, the Red Sox could allocate their time, attention and resources elsewhere. But this version of Benintendi complicates things.
If nothing else, the Red Sox will have to find a right-handed-hitting outfield option, along the lines of what they have in Kevin Pillar this season. But Pillar was viewed more of a security blanket because of Verdugo's back and Bradley Jr.'s propensity to go on streaks. It had little to do with Benintendi. The narrative has now at least been budged a bit.
Are there so many concerns that the Red Sox will need to dip into their Mookie Money and pay for the likes of George Springer or Marcell Ozuna? Still unlikely. But there are plenty of other types of Pillar-esque solutions who will be available.
And what about the long-term? That could be tricky. Benintendi is under the Red Sox' control through the 2022 season. Prior to this season, a legitimate conversation could be had about identifying the lefty hitter as a piece of the Sox' foundation beyond 2022, which would be a welcome notion considering the team's lack of outfield options in their minor-league system. After Duran, Gilberto Jimenez is next best available outfielder in the minors, but he is light-years away, having been slated to play at Single-A Greenville this season. (They did draft an outfielder in the second round in 2018, Nick Decker, but he hasn't played above short-season Single-A Lowell.)
The best bet is that Benintendi finds his level. Prior to 2019, he was a legitimate star-in-the-making thanks to everyday production at the plate and in the field the previous two seasons. As Hyers pointed out, he also looked the part as recently as Spring Training, 2.0. This, however, has at least spawned a conversation, one the Red Sox most likely never saw coming.