Red Sox

Despite 2020 struggles, the Red Sox shouldn’t move on from Andrew Benintendi

Benintendi's been the subject of trade rumors lately.

Andrew Benintendi had a rough 2020, but it shouldn't warrant the Red Sox to trade him.

There is undeniable merit in the argument for trading Andrew Benintendi.

The 26-year-old outfielder followed up a mediocre 2019 season (13 homers, .770 OPS, and a spike in strikeouts to 140) with possibly the worst abbreviated season I’ve ever seen a good player have. He hit .103 with a .128 slugging percentage in 14 games before a rib injury knocked him out for the remainder of the 50-game schedule. In November, colleague Alex Speier detailed Benintendi’s troubling decline in both bat speed and running speed, and it’s fair to wonder whether those skills can be recovered after the crash.

When he rocketed to the Red Sox in 2016, a year after he was drafted with the No. 7 overall pick, I thought his floor as a player was Mike Greenwell (who was better than you remember), and his ceiling was Fred Lynn (who was as wonderful as you remember). Now? He’s kind of turned into Todd Benzinger, a once-promising outfield prospect with a lovely swing who turned out to be not all that good.

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And yet…

There is undeniable merit in the argument for keeping Andrew Benintendi.

He has proven that he can excel in the big leagues, practically from the get-go. He entered the 2017 season as the No. 1-ranked prospect in baseball, and he lived up to the billing his first full season at age 22, hitting 20 homers, swiping 20 bases, driving in 90 runs, and slashing 271/.352/.424. He played well enough in left field that some believed he could play center on a regular basis. He was a cornerstone player on the ’18 World Series champions, hasn’t hit the heart of his prime yet, and carries just a $6.4 million salary this season. The Red Sox would also be selling low – I wouldn’t expect Chaim Bloom to acquire much more than, say, a Double-A pitcher with an intriguing spin rate and a so-so outfield prospect with at least one fundamental flaw – at a point when they should actually be trying to buy low.

As lost as he was last season, it was just 14 games, a minuscule sample size. In 1978, MVP-to-be Jim Rice had a 13-game stretch from May 29-June 13 in which he hit .189. 1967, the Carl Yastrzemski, in the midst of the best individual season we’ll ever see) hit .120 in a seven-game span from the second game of a doubleheader on August 27 through Sept. 2. (He got impossibly hot after that, slashing .422/.509/.789 with 9 homers over the final 25 games.) I’m more alarmed by Benintendi’s regression in ’19 than last year’s brief debacle.

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Barring a deal in which they get established, appealing pitching help in return – and good luck with that –  put me down on the side of the ledger voting no on trading him. I’m voting that way not so much that I’m banking on a bounce-back season (though I will note, in further confirming how good he has been at times already, that his second-most-similar player through age 25 is a guy you know as Dewey). The concerns about what is going on with Benintendi are very real.

It’s more that this team, two seasons removed from winning the World Series, is already unrecognizable enough. Benintendi’s promise, fulfilled at least for his first couple of seasons, made him a popular player, as did his sweet swing and a certain catch he made to close out the 2018 American League Championship Series against the Astros. We know how much fun he is to watch when he’s going well. And let’s admit it: It’s up for debate how fun to watch this team is going to be in 2021, coming off their 24-win ’20 season in which there was very little reason to tune into NESN every night beyond the candid banter between Jerry Remy, Dennis Eckersley, and Dave O’Brien.

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Yes, Xander Bogaerts is special, a former super-prospect fully realized. Rafael Devers is fun to watch hit. Alex Verdugo could be a better version of Trot Nixon. But that’s about it for compelling talent. And Verdugo, no matter how good he becomes, will always be a reminder that the Red Sox traded Mookie Betts, an unforgivable sin that will torment fans even beyond the day he goes into the Hall of Fame with a Dodgers hat on his cap.

Benintendi is a player that has been easy and usually satisfying to root for. There aren’t many players who fit that criteria left on the roster, and so far this offseason, the most exciting player transaction Chaim Bloom has made is to sign 31-year-old pitcher Matt Andriese and his 4.57 career earned-run average. Signing Winchester resident Corey Kluber would spur some interest, but after he reportedly impressed during a workout attended by 25 teams Wednesday, does anyone expect the Red Sox to be the highest bidder?

We do roster turnover can pay off  – entering the ’13 season, the Red Sox added Mike Napoli, Koji Uehara, Shane Victorino, Stephen Drew, and several other veterans who were downright beloved by the end of that delightful October. But that team also had more fan favorites and established stars – David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia, Jon Lester – than this one does.

The fear that Bloom will turn the Red Sox into Rays North – constantly churning the roster and trading popular players like Blake Snell without a flicker of sentimentality — is overblown. The goal is to be more like the Dodgers – find undervalued talent, acquire and pay elite talent – but only the first part of that plan is currently in action right now.

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Bloom has already won some smaller trades, and I’ll begrudgingly admit he did OK in the Betts deal. He’s smart, gets the mind-set of Sox fans, and will prove more than adept at the job over the long haul. But the Red Sox haven’t been this uninteresting since September of 2012, the Bobby V. year. He should keep Benintendi, a popular player whose quest for redemption is one of the few interesting things about a team that sure could use a little buzz.

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