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Does Andrew Benintendi make sense as A’s trade target?

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Outfield is low on Oakland’s list of needs

Boston Red Sox Summer Camp Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

The Oakland A’s offseason has been so quiet that the crickets are starting to charge overtime. Finally, this week has brought something resembling news.

On Thursday they acquired an actual baseball player in reliever Nik Turley, but that was a small enough deal that only cash went the other direction. Before that, on Tuesday, the A’s were involved in a real-life trade rumor, regarding Boston Red Sox outfielder Andrew Benintendi. Sean McAdam of the Boston Sports Journal reported the following:

One industry source believes an Andrew Benintendi deal could happen soon, but it won’t be with MIA: “That’s not happening.’’ Others who’ve checked in: TEX, HOU and OAK. Other source calls PIT a potential fit, mindful of Cherington connection.

This is the faintest of rumors, nothing more than a “checked in” mention. Further reports went on to indicate even more teams involved, and perhaps more deeply involved than the ones mentioned by McAdam. But it also sounds like Benintendi is definitely going somewhere, so with nothing else going on, it’s enough for us to kick the tires on him for a moment.

The short version: Benintendi is a lefty outfielder who might be a great hitter but hasn’t been the last couple years, and might be able to play CF but has rarely needed to in Boston. He slumped in 2019 and then missed most of 2020 to a strained ribcage, but he’s just entering his prime, as he’ll turn 27 in July.

More detail: He’s spent his entire pro career in the spotlight, beginning as a No. 7 overall draft pick and working his way up to being the No. 1 prospect in the entire minors. He made his MLB debut in 2016, and by 2018 he was posting a 4 WAR season and winning a World Series ring.

At his best, he was hitting for average and getting on base, with double-digit homer power and the upside for more thump. He would also steal bases at a high success rate and play solid defense in LF. By age 23 he already put up the numbers of a budding star, leaving his ceiling up to the heights of your imagination.

Benintendi, 2018: .290/.366/.465, 122 wRC+, 16 HR, 10.7%, 16.0% Ks, 21-of-24 SB

But then he fell off a cliff. His swing-and-miss rate skyrocketed in 2019, and with it his strikeouts, which dumped his average and OBP into a more mediocre range. No new power emerged to replace the lost contact, and his steals were cut in half while his sprint speeds indicate that he lost a step. He was still a decent everyday player (2 WAR), but it was a dip in terms of career progress. He got off to an even worse start in 2020, and only played 14 games before getting hurt.

Add it up, and you’ve got a classic buy-low challenge. Do you think Benintendi will bounce back and resume his path to stardom, as a hitter who can get on base and slug and run while playing CF on defense? Or have we already seen his best, as “only” a solid bat in LF?

Benintendi, 2019: .266/.343/.431, 100 wRC+, 13 HR, 9.6% BB, 22.8% Ks

As for money, he’s signed for $6.6 million in 2021, and then has one more season under arbitration in 2022 in which he’ll get a raise of some amount.

The Red Sox outfield currently includes Alex Verdugo and newly signed Hunter Renfroe, though longtime ace defender Jackie Bradley is a free agent so he’s out of the picture for now. Buster Olney of ESPN reports they could make a “series of moves ... in an effort to upgrade the ‘21 team.”

Analysis

I just don’t see the match here.

Granted, Benintendi would fit on the A’s roster, effectively taking over Robbie Grossman’s role. He bats lefty, and his strength on offense is plate discipline and making lots of contact, without dragging down the team’s defense, all of which would help Oakland’s lineup. No harm in “checking in” on him.

But the A’s are working with basically no resources this winter, with zero money and limited trade chips, and the outfield is one of the last things in the world they should be spending anything on. They still must figure out both halves of their middle infield, and the setup crew in their bullpen, and another starting pitcher wouldn’t hurt.

Meanwhile, they have six promising lefty-hitting outfielders on their 40-man roster, most of them ready to compete for MLB jobs right away in spring training. Benintendi is a bigger name, but at a hefty price and with his own shroud of uncertainty after two straight off-years. There’s every chance that Oakland already has an adequate everyday LF on their roster at the minimum salary, as I wrote in this article titled “Oakland A’s should absolutely not spend on new outfielder this winter.”

On its own, acquiring Benintendi would be a sensible buy-low gamble to upgrade the lineup. But the buy isn’t low enough at his salary, especially in a winter when players of similar cost at positions of actual need (like Tommy La Stella) have been deemed too expensive. It would be a luxury purchase for a team that, figuratively speaking, still hasn’t paid its power and water bills (by addressing more urgent positions on the diamond).

What would it take to get him, anyway? Baseball Trade Values doesn’t assign him too much surplus trade value, though still enough for a couple Top 20 prospects from Oakland’s system. But Boston wants to upgrade immediately, and the A’s don’t want to add salary. If you offset the dollars by dumping Stephen Piscotty’s contract in exchange, then you might have to add A.J. Puk to even it out. If you instead want the Sox to send back enough money to cover Benintendi’s salary, then straight up for Sean Manaea might get it done.

I’ll pass on all those ideas. I’d rather run back Piscotty and hope for a bounce-back, than spend one of our top prospects just to swap out for Benintendi and still be hoping for a bounce-back. And I want to add starters, not subtract them, so losing the affordably priced Manaea would be counter-productive.

If Benintendi could play shortstop? Or if he his salary was under $2 million? Or if he was coming off something more than a .103 batting average and long-term injury? Sure! But spending scarce assets to gamble on a maybe-upgrade at the greatest area of organizational logjam depth? Nah.