In the midst of a brutal stretch of Kansas City winter, when the temperatures are hovering in the low teens, the Royals did their best to spark the hot stove to life, trading on Wednesday evening for Red Sox outfielder Andrew Benintendi. It’s reportedly a multiple team deal with the Mets the third wheel in this tango. Franchy Cordero will receive his mail in Boston. Kahlil Lee is Queens-bound.
This is the left-handed outfield bat Dayton Moore has been looking for.
Benintendi logged over 1,000 innings in left field for the Red Sox in each season from 2017 to 2019. In those three years, he hit .276/.354/.440 with a wRC+ of 109. He hit 20 dingers and swiped 20 bags in 2017, but his best overall offensive production came in 2018 when he hit 41 doubles to go along with 16 home runs while walking at a career-best 10.7 percent.
In 2019, Benintendi got off to a slow start and ended his season battling an oblique injury. But he did have a five-month stretch where he hit .290/.364/.477. His Statcast rates (such as Average Exit Velocity, Barrels, Hard Hit %) all increased that season. But his strikeout rate jumped nearly seven percent from 2018 to 2019. Not that surprising given that he was seeing a ton of first pitch strikes and falling behind in the count. Nearly 62 percent of his plate appearances started off with a strike in 2019.
The 2019 season is a bit of an outlier for Benintendi’s plate discipline stats. Normally around a 25 percent chase rate, he upped it to nearly 30 percent that year. He was likewise more aggressive with pitches in the zone, offering at those nearly 77 percent of the time when his career rate was around 67 percent. Overall, he swung at over half the pitches he saw, about five percent higher than his normal swing rates.
Let’s go back to the stats in the table above and linger on Benintendi’s doubles output from 2018 and 2019. Anyone who follows the Royals know that hitting 40 doubles in back to back seasons is something that will catch the eye of the front office. Moore noted that Benintendi likes to hit at Kauffman Stadium. He has raked at The K, posting .485/.564/.848 in 39 career plate appearances.
“We think he’s going to be just a doubles machine here,” Moore said on a Zoom call Wednesday night. “He’s got a chance to really hit for average and wear out those gaps.”
Say! Let’s pause for just a moment to admire the majesty of Benintendi taking a center-cut fastball from new teammate Mike Minor deep in 2019.
A left on left dinger. Good times.
This is probably a decent moment to point out Benintendi does have some pointed platoon splits. He’s much better in his career against right-handed pitching, batting .283/.361/.459 compared to his .243/.328/.363 performance against southpaws. The home run you see above is just one of 10 he’s hit in his career versus lefties. Poor Mike Minor.
For Benintendi, 2020 was an absolute annus horribilis. An abysmal line of .103/.314/.128 in a season that was ultimately short-circuited by a rib injury after 14 games. It’s difficult to get any kind of read on such a small sample and when you factor in the delayed start to the season, summer camp and Covid fears…How in the world do you evaluate a season like that?
I discussed it a bit last month when covering Carlos Santana’s 2020 season, but when a hitter has a miserable 14 games before hitting the Injured List for the remainder of a shortened season? Forget about it. If Benintendi struggles throughout 2021 and there’s something sinister afoot, the Royals could non-tender him next winter. But that’s getting just a little too far ahead at this point. When evaluating, the focus should be on the three previous seasons where Benintendi was a full-time player.
Benintendi occasionally occupied the leadoff spot for Boston, but more often than not found himself hitting second, most frequently behind Mookie Betts. With the Royals committed to Whit Merrifield at the top of the order, the safe assumption would be for Benintendi to settle in at his normal spot of second in the lineup. Carlos Santana could hit third which would give Jorge Soler the luxury of three solid OBP citizens when he strides to the plate in a cleanup role. That’s a fact not lost on Moore.
“We knew that we needed to do a better job with our on-base percentage in certain spots,” Moore said. “There’s terrific pitching in our division and you can’t give at bats away.”
Then Salvador Perez hits fifth. That’s a formidable top half of the lineup. And if Adalberto Mondesi and Hunter Dozier hit…
To further speculate, if Perez’s monster offensive season of 2020 was for real, then you could slide Benintendi to fifth—where he also hit for the Sox—while moving Santana up to the second spot with Perez hitting third. Or they could just go ahead and align that way against a left-handed starter. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Defensively in left, Benintendi grades out as an average fielder. He’s actually been quite inconsistent over the three years where he logged his prime innings. He was really good in 2017, ranking second in Defensive Runs Saved. He was ok in 2018, ranking sixth in DRS. And he was really not good at all in 2019 with a negative DRS that saw him rank 22nd among left fielders. He has graded poorly on Baseball Savant’s Outs Above Average metric in two of those three seasons.
He generally grades strong on shallow fly balls, but not so great on balls hit over his head. According to Savant, his outfield jumps are generally below average, which obviously doesn’t help his range. Maybe working with Rusty Kuntz can help. Benintendi has a decent arm that’s good for a handful of assists a year.
The decline in defense actually mirrors his decline in sprint speed. Check out these percentiles from Baseball Savant. The most recent season is at the bottom.
That’s quite a drop in speed from year to year. His stolen base totals declined in 2019, but he didn’t make as many outs on the bases as he had in the previous two seasons. Maybe he’s slowing down a bit but running smarter.
This winter, Moore has discussed a “financial fit” when talking about free agents and it follows that this is also a consideration when the club is exploring trades. When I’ve looked at the payroll this winter, I’ve speculated there is plenty of room for the Royals to add salary. They’ve done that here. Benintendi is due to collect $6.6 million in 2021, the second year of a two-year extension he signed ahead of last season. The Red Sox will be sending $2.8 million to the Royals to cover around 40 percent of his contract. As noted above, he will be eligible for arbitration for the final time next winter before becoming a free agent following the 2022 season.
The timing of Benintendi’s upcoming free agency brings into further focus the contracts of Carlos Santana and Mike Minor. Both free agents inked two-year deals this winter. Unless another extension is in the offering, Whit Merrifield will also be a free agent after 2022. And don’t forget the Danny Duffy and Salvador Perez contracts come off the books after this upcoming season.
Let’s talk a bit about what the Royals surrendered, starting with Cordero.
Acquired last spring for left-handed reliever Tim Hill, Cordero has long tantalized with his tools. Yet he’s had extended stays on the Injured List in each of the last three seasons. Along the lines of Benintendi’s abbreviated 2020 season, Cordero appeared in just 16 games and never got on track.
Because of those injuries, Cordero has burned quite a bit of service time. He was eligible for arbitration for the first time this winter and agreed to a contract at $800,000. With a shade over three years of service time, he will be eligible for free agency one year after Benintendi. That’s wild to think that Benintendi has over 2,100 career PAs to his credit, while with just a year less of service time, Cordero has only 315 career PAs. Injuries suck.
That is to say, Cordero is still something of an unknown commodity at the major league level. There’s a chance he can stay out of the training room and on the field and will finally fulfill his potential in Boston. That’s the risk of a trade when you’re dealing away a player with upside or potential. But the Royals weren’t looking for potential in left field. They acquired the player with a solid three-year track record to help them over the next two years.
Then there is Lee. He was rated as the Royals’ eighth-best prospect by both Baseball Prospectus and MLB Pipeline. Lee will take pitches and is fine accepting a free pass, but the knock on him is that he’s sometimes a little too willing to keep the bat on his shoulder, which results in him often falling behind in counts. He finished with a strikeout rate of over 28 percent in Double-A in 2019. Pipeline grades his power as plus and his hit tool as a touch below. There’s a chance he puts it all together and, as he’s been young for the leagues where he’s played by a couple of years, there’s no reason to give up on him as a potential big leaguer just yet. There are enough warning signs that he’s far from a sure thing.
The Royals dealt potential for what Moore said was a “proven, productive major league player. We’re happy to use our farm system to acquire that type of talent.”
The reports also have the Royals sending two players to be named later to the Red Sox. It’s too early to speculate and who knows when the deal will be completed, but these are generally organizational guys. Although the concern is understandable that they could be more than “org guys” given the amount of money that passed from the Red Sox to the Royals. According to Red Sox GM Chaim Bloom, the frameworks for the PTBNLs are in place but that it will take a little while for those players to be revealed. It would appear the headliners have already changed teams.
After promoting two of their top pitching prospects to the majors last summer and with more on the way, the Royals clearly see an opportunity. This trade won’t push them to the front of the AL Central pack by any means, but it certainly improves the squad for this year and probably next. It’s an interesting gambit, seemingly positioning themselves to compete for a Wild Card that is probably, if we’re being honest, still out of reach. But the Royals of Thursday are better than the Royals of Wednesday and with all the work they’ve done this offseason, they have built a solid foundation for at least the next two seasaons. With a few fortuitous breaks…who knows what could happen. Besides, in a landscape where so many teams aren’t even trying to compete, it’s refreshing to see the Royals attempt to build.
That the Royals were able to acquire their new starting left fielder without having to give up one of those pitching prospects is a massive plus. This club heads to Surprise for their first workout in a little over a week, they will be a much better team than the one we saw at the end of September. And shouldn’t that be the goal of every offseason?