By Terry Cushman – @cushmanMLB
One of Ben Cherington’s final acts as general manager of the Boston Red Sox was drafting Andrew Benintendi with his first round pick in the June 2015 MLB amateur draft. The former Arkansas Razorback was the seventh pick overall. Another former Red Sox GM, Theo Esptein had reportedly highly coveted Benintendi, and had hoped he would fall to the Cubs who were set to pick two slots after the Red Sox, ninth overall. Ben snatched him up, and Theo settled for Ian Happ.
It was no wonder two former World Series winning GM’s were gunning for Benintendi. He was the Southeastern Conference player of the year with 19 home runs, and a .380/.489/.715 slash line. Several scouts predicted the Ohio native would be fast tracked to the majors due to his polish and poise from his college career. So it was no surprise when he tore through A-Ball, and was more than holding his own at AA-Portland. Yoan Moncada was considered to be Boston’s “untouchable super prospect,” but Benintendi was the more developed of the two.
By mid summer of 2016, the Red Sox had no formidable left fielder, and decided to give the 22 year old Benintendi his first call up to the majors. Many, including myself, thought it was far too soon for a player who had only been drafted 13 months earlier. It is rare for a player to actually reach the major leagues without having played a full season in the minors. Let alone a player who skipped Pawtucket altogether. Take Mookie Betts for example, he was drafted in 2011 and never made his debut til mid 2014.
Despite being hampered by a foot injury for a few weeks after his debut, Benintendi was hitting well over .300 at the plate, and making highlight real defensive plays in the outfield. He ended the regular season at .295, and crushed a long ball in game one of the 2016 ALDS against Trevor Bauer of the Cleveland Indians.
In 2017 the 23 year old came into the season as the heavy favorite to win Rookie of the Year. However, New York’s Aaron Judge had other plans. Even though Benintendi had a slight dip in his batting average, on base, and slugging percentages, he still managed 20 home runs and 90 RBI’s. Not exactly a sophomore slump, but completely understandable knowing the circus-like atmosphere which defined the 2017 Boston Red Sox. It also didn’t help that John Farrell was utterly clueless in handling young talent. The buffoonish manager spent the early part of the summer platooning him with Chris Young, who was playing poorly enough to be DFA’ed from Japan.
Also on track for a possible call up to the majors as Rafael Devers. The Dominican native signed as an international free agent with Boston back in 2013 at 16 years of age, and was the #14 ranked prospect in all of major league baseball at the time of his debut.
For the better part of the last couple of decades following the departure of Wade Boggs, third base at Fenway Park has never really had a franchise player to occupy that corner of the diamond for a lengthy tenure. Bill Mueller was a solid and a vital part of the curse busting World Series in an albeit brief stint with Boston. Mike Lowell was perhaps the very best since Wade Boggs during the four years he manned the hot corner. Adrian Beltre took a one year deal to boost his free agency value before departing to Texas. Kevin Youkilis transitioned to third for a full season due to the signing of Adrian Gonzales, only to lose his job to Will Middlebrooks who perhaps turned out to be the biggest disappointment of the last decade. And finally, Pablo Sandoval slowly but surely ate his way out of Boston after a shameful lack of effort in living up to his $95M contract.
Throughout the better part of May, June, and July of 2017, the Red Sox front office explored several possibilities to adequately replace Sandoval. Mike Moustakas of the Kansas City Royals was by far the most popular choice among the Fenway Faithful. However, Royals GM Dayton Moore was more content to give another deep run in the playoffs one last valiant effort. Eduardo Nunez was eventually acquired from the Giants for low end prospects, but ended up taking over at second base for an ailing and aging Dustin Pedroia. Fans and media personnel from the Boston press box all clamored for Devers to receive a call up in hopes of recreating similar magic from the year before when Benintendi burst onto the scene. Though that idea was downplayed by manager John Farrell and Dave Dombrowski. Both seemed reluctant to take that approach due to the fact Devers might have needed extra time to finish his development.
In typical Red Sox front office fashion, and all statements pointing to the contrary, Devers was promoted to the Red Sox eight days ahead of the non-waiver deadline on July 23rd. The popular theory for the timing of this move was to get a brief look at how Devers might perform. If all went well, no further moves would need to be made in regards to third base.
The gamble paid off. Devers crushed a solo bomb for his first ever major league hit against Seattle’s Andrew Moore. His call up, combined with the Nunez acquisition invigorated the Red Sox offense, which had seemed punchless all year long. Suddenly all cylinders were finally firing as everyone eyed a post season run, and a division win.
The signature moment for Devers during the regular season came against the New York Yankees on August 13, 2017. The Yankees had a 2-1 lead with one out in the ninth inning. Aroldis Chapman appeared well on his way to securing the victory as he stood on the mound when the 20 year old rookie stepped into the batter’s box. Chapman was the shark, Devers was the guppy, who we all assumed would be gobbled up quickly. Yankee Stadium was electric as they were in the midst of making their own case for a possible deep run in the month of October. Yankee fans were preparing for a victory dance of their own in their sold out stadium while Devers was hanging tough with a 1-2 count. On the sixth pitch, ever the flame thrower, Chapman unleashed a 102MPH fastball to the upper middle part of the strike zone. A thunderous crack came off the young third baseman’s bat. The crowd quieted as they witnessed in utter disbelief the ball sail through the New York City air and into the Yankee bullpen for a game tying solo home run. With only six weeks to go in the regular season, Aroldis Chapman had just given up his first home run of the year to the young Red Sox prospect born in the year 1996.
Devers had some defensive lapses over the final weeks of the summer, but was largely unphased at the plate. He was the anti-Will Middlebrooks. His power was raw, performance was clutch, and the moment was never too big. This was still very much evident during the ALDS against the Houston Astros. As the defacto team captain, Dustin Pedroia struggled to maintain composure and ultimately melted down, Devers was calm and locked in. He hit a two run homer in game three, and an inside the park home run in game four to bring the Red Sox within a run of tying the game. However, it was not meant to be, and the season was over a couple of innings later.
So finally, which of the two has the most upside?
Benintendi has established himself as a five tool player. He has conquered every obstacle presented to him, whether it’s battling through slumps, a clueless manager, or an intense market to play baseball in.
Based on his very respectable stats, it’s fair to say that the former Razorback has not come close to reaching his ceiling yet. Under the guidance of Alex Cora, the coaching of Tim Hyers, I would not rule out an MVP caliber year for the 24 year old lefty.
2017 was tumultuous enough from a public relations perspective, as well as a leadership perspective, that if Benintendi were to buckle under the pressure, or experience prolonged slumps, he certainly would have under those conditions. He has the necessary confidence to be a superstar left fielder for the Boston Red Sox. His teammates share that as well, including the front office.
While Devers does not having the makings of a future gold glover, he does have the raw power to mostly fill the large void which was left by David Ortiz. Even if the Red Sox finally sign J.D. Martinez, Devers will still be a powerful middle of the order bat, and be a cornerstone of a future World Series winning team.
Giancarlo Stanton won the NL MVP last season. Is he an elite defender? Absolutely not. How about Gary Sanchez? He’s one of the worst defensive catchers in baseball, but still a perennial 30/100 player who’s ceiling has not yet even been hit.
Lou Merloni said on WEEI last summer: “If the Red Sox aren’t strong enough to take criticism from Dennis Eckersley, they aren’t strong enough to win in October.” This statement resonated profoundly with me. Devers was the exception to the rest of the team. He was absolutely clutch, and exceeded all expectations when the lights shined the brightest.
The “safe” pick in regards to higher upside between the two is clearly Benintendi. Devers has a much shorter sample size, which makes him harder to guage. However, I am willing to give him the nod. His bat seems mightier, and his fearlessness will certainly strike the most fear against
opposing pitching staffs. Agree or disagree, having them both is a blessing. And 2018 is gonna be immensely enjoyable to be apart of.
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