The most fulfilling time to be a sports fan, of course, is a precise one: When the moment comes to celebrate a championship just won.
In Boston, the duck boat engines fire up and a parade commences. In a place like, oh, Tampa, the party happens where the dinghies mingle with the yachts. The mood is sunny no matter the locale or weather, and the beverages flow.
Being a fan gets no more satisfying than that. But I’d submit that the second-most satisfying aspect of caring about a sports team – especially a baseball team – is when a prospect’s promise is fulfilled, and he develops into a likable hometown hero, one who might even end up riding triumphantly down Boylston on one of those sweet amphibious vehicles a time or two.
Andrew Benintendi is no longer a member of the Red Sox today, having been traded to the Kansas City Royals Wednesday night for outfielder Franchy Cordero, a minor-league pitcher (via the Mets), and three players to be named later who might make the Sea Dogs more interesting.
If there are Red Sox fans happy about this trade, their voices are lost in the cacophony of frustration. Benintendi was a tremendously popular member of the Red Sox, arriving on the scene in 2016 with Fred Lynn’s swing and 80-grade hair on the scouting scale. He was a phenom’s phenom, the No. 7 pick in the 2015 draft who rocketed up the Red Sox farm system, earned Baseball America’s designation as the top prospect in the game entering ’17, submitted a 20-homer, 20-steal season as a 22-year-old that same season, and made perhaps the most important play in the ’18 Red Sox postseason charge to the World Series crown, a diving grab with the bases loaded for the final out of Game 4 of the American League Championship Series against the Astros.
He was easy to like, immediately, with his low-key charisma, aesthetically smooth game, and the promise of his promise. He appeared to be a cornerstone even before he became a champion. Dave Dombrowski, habitually willing to meet a steep asking price for a coveted player, refused to include him in the Chris Sale blockbuster. In those early days, it seemed certain he’d be here for a generation, putting up .300-25-95 batting lines year after year, at worst becoming a superior all-around version of Mike Greenwell.
And now he’s a Royal. A Royal. It’s surprising to see him go in the sense that we so sure not so long ago that he’d be here for a long time – and yet it should not be surprising at all. Benintendi hasn’t hit for 2 ½ seasons now. In the second half of 2018, he slashed .279/.343/.384, with just 2 home runs in 256 plate appearances. Since the beginning of the 2019 season, he has put up a .255/.341/.410 line, with just 13 homers in 667 plate appearances. Last season was a complete bust – he hit .103 in 14 games before a rib cage injury ended his season. He also regressed as a left fielder – the idea of playing him in center would have been akin to putting Troy O’Leary there circa ’99 — and lost some speed on the basepaths.
His promise was fulfilled, but only fleetingly, and it’s a mystery why. I remember his father saying once that he never messed with Andrew’s swing as a kid, that it came naturally to him and he knew to leave a beautiful thing alone. I wonder if Benintendi messed himself up in the quest to alter his launch angle. There are Walt Hriniak-messing-up-Rich Gedman vibes to all of this.
Chaim Bloom isn’t going to judge a player on what he was supposed to be or what he was for a while. He’s judging on what the player is, and what he is likely to be going forward, and the logical conclusion is that the Red Sox just don’t believe Benintendi will find all that has gone missing from his game. I suspect they see him as an average left fielder with a no longer high ceiling, and that there’s little concern that this deal will be regrettable. I doubt they believe they sold low. Rather, they sold when they got a deal they liked.
Because so many of us still think of Benintendi as that surefire star rather than what he has actually been – I cringed when I saw Allen Craig was listed among his most similar hitters on baseball-reference – it feels like the Red Sox got little in return, even if we don’t even know the full return yet.
Acquiring Cordero isn’t exactly a youth movement – he’s 58 days younger than Benintendi – and it requires no deep dive into analytics to find his flaws. He’s struck out 110 times in 315 major league plate appearances. I referred to him as Franchy Mo Pena on Twitter when I got a look at his stats, but that’s really not fair to either player. Pena did hit .301 with 11 homers as a part-time player for the 2006 Red Sox. Cordero has raw power to spare, and improved his strikeout rate significantly last season. There’s bust potential, sure, but he has the kind of promise that flickered out in Benintendi. I’m looking forward to seeing what he can do. I think you’ll like him.
Bloom has — wisely, if unsentimentally – been systematically rebuilding the fringes and depth of the organization, and the willingness to trade just about anyone if it brings back a similarly skilled player at a lesser salary and a prospect or two something we’d better get used to. It’s an approach that deserves the benefit of the doubt, presuming the intent will be there to pursue stars, a la the Dodgers, once the bones of the organization are healthy.
But Bloom must be aware, too, that incrementally improving the roster while dealing away players fans care about will only be tolerated for so long. If Cordero pans out and becomes a fan favorite, then the Sox go ahead deal him in three years for a player with a similar profile and a smaller salary, why should anyone be expected to make a sustained emotional (and financial) investment in this team?
The optics of trading Benintendi a year to the day after the shameful trade of Mookie Betts to the Dodgers did not go unnoticed around here. Two years ago, entering the 2019 season, I wrote a cover story for our baseball preview section answering a wildly fun question: Where do Betts, Benintendi, and Jackie Bradley Jr. rank among the best outfields in franchise history? It would have been unfathomable to any of us that they’d all be gone – c’mon, if they wanted Bradley back, they’d have shown real interest during the season – two years later.
Trading Benintendi is not a bad move, and we can’t judge the return now. But it’s always a bummer to see a fan-favorite go, even if his popularity exceeded what his production warranted. There’s a lesson in the response to this, and I hope Bloom hears it. It goes a little something like this.
We liked Benintendi, but we get why you’d trade him. He didn’t become everything he was supposed to, and maybe he never will. But the next time a player comes along who fully fulfills his promise, you’d best keep him around. Red Sox fans like generational stars almost as much as they like parades.
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