Even though spring training is still two months away, it’s safe to say the spotlight will be on Andrew Benintendi headed into the 2021 major-league season.
Coming off an injury-shortened 2020 campaign in which he mustered all of two hits in 52 trips to the plate, the Red Sox outfielder has been a focal point in conversations between reporters and club officials since the start of the offseason.
Back in late September, chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom said he would not let 2020 change his opinion on Benintendi, who he views as having “great, all-around ability.” Last week, general manager Brian O’Halloran said something along these same lines to kick off the virtual winter meetings.
“Andrew has proven he’s a very capable outfielder,” said O’Halloran via a Zoom call. “Obviously it was a tough year for Andrew all around [in 2020]. The injury and sort of a lost season unfortunately due to that injury. We expect that he’s healthy, he comes back again. We expect big things out of Andrew. As of right now, he’s expected to be our left fielder. Can’t rule anything out going forward. But that’s the plan for right now.”
And on Thursday, Benintendi’s manager, Alex Cora, also expressed confidence that the 26-year-old can bounce back next year despite the fact he has been on the decline going back to 2019.
“The Andrew that we saw in October 2018, that’s the Andrew we want,” Cora said. “I know a lot people talk about the second half [of 2018], I don’t think it was that bad. In ’19, talking to him, he tried to make some adjustments as far as hitting the ball in the air. You saw him, he became a little bit stronger. He wasn’t out of shape, actually, he was in great shape. But, I think his mindset was a little bit different.”
After nearly making his first All-Star team while playing a pivotal role for Boston during their World Series-winning run in 2018, Benintendi fell back down to earth in 2019. Over 138 games played, the Cincinnati native posted a .774 OPS and league-average 100 wRC+ to go along with 13 home runs and 68 RBI.
Headed into the 2019/2020 offseason, Benintendi intended to slim down, and he did so. Bloom had even said that he thought the outfielder “looked great” during spring training and summer camp, but that obviously did not translate to positive results.
In addition to a miserable start to the 2020 campaign, Benintendi suffered a right rib cage strain on August 11, which would wind up costing him the remainder of the shortened 60-game season.
While he was playing though, Benintendi was striking out nearly 33% of the time while swinging and missing at a 13.5% clip, both of which were uncharacteristic and career-worsts for the University of Arkansas product.
“Last year (2020), talking to him, he never felt right at the batter’s box, although it was 50-something at-bats,” Cora said of his conversations with Benintendi. “The swings-and-misses — we talked about it in ’19, we saw it in ’20 — we need to find a balance between driving the ball and not swinging and missing. I’ll take Andrew Benintendi, the complete player. I don’t want Andrew to hit 35-40 home runs. I want him to get on base, be fast in the base paths, steal bases, play better defense — the way he played in October  — and if we get that guy back, we’re in a good position.”
From the time the Red Sox departed from Houston after evening up the American League Championship Series against the Astros on October 14 until the final out of the 2018 World Series was recorded in Los Angeles on October 28, Benintendi batted .303 while scoring nine runs and making multiple superb defensive plays in left field. Boston went unbeaten in all seven games he started. This is the kind of player the club would like to get back in 2021.
“As you know, I’m a big fan of Andrew,” Cora added. “At 7:05 or 7:35, I know he gives his best, but we need him to get back to staying level in the strike zone, drive the ball all over the field, run around, and be a complete player. I don’t want him to be one-dimensional.”
Benintendi, who doesn’t turn 27 until July and is under team control through 2022, is about to embark on his fifth full season as a member of the Red Sox organization. He was selected by Boston with the seventh overall pick in the 2015 amateur draft out of Arkansas and quickly rose through the minor-league ranks before making his big-league debut the following summer. The fact that he was a first-round pick proves to Cora that the potential is still there.
“When this kid got drafted, he was probably the best hitting prospect coming out of college,” stated the Sox skipper. “Like I always said, those first-rounders, they don’t get lucky, they’re good. I still believe Andrew Benintendi is a good player. I think Andrew Benintendi is an impactful player, and we got to get him back to that mindset that he had in ’18 — and even in ’17.”