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Alex Speier

Red Sox liked what they saw in top draft pick Andrew Benintendi

Arkansas outfielder Andrew Benintendi’s numbers improved dramatically in his sophomore season.
Arkansas outfielder Andrew Benintendi’s numbers improved dramatically in his sophomore season.(AP)

Why did the Red Sox make Andrew Benintendi their highest June draft selection out of college in franchise history? The answer reflects the unusual combination of both skills and risk profiles that became available to the team by virtue of having the No. 7 overall pick in the draft.

The Red Sox had a history with Benintendi dating to his time at Madeira High in Cincinnati. Ohio Valley area scout John Pyle, who saw the outfielder in his senior year of high school, had put Benintendi on his radar there, seeing him as a quick-twitch athlete with a full complement of potential tools if he could add strength in college.

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When fellow area scout Chris Mears saw him at the Connie Mack World Series in 2013, prior to Benintendi’s freshman year at Arkansas, he instantly was drawn to a dynamic athlete.

“I thought he could really hit and he’d be fun to watch over the coming years at Arkansas,” Mears recalled on Monday night.

Still, it would have been hard to forecast what would happen in Benintendi’s sophomore season in college.

Though hindered, according to Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn, by the lingering effects of a wrist injury and an in-season hamstring injury as a freshman, Benintendi had a solid freshman year. He hit .276 with a .368 OBP and .333 slugging mark along with one homer for Arkansas in 2014, and as he got healthier, he got better down the stretch. Van Horn moved him from the leadoff spot to the three-hole for the final weeks of the season. The Sox saw a player who, while making the transition from high school to the most competitive baseball conference in the country, held his own as a freshman.

Usually, draft-eligible sophomores are eager to play in summer leagues to solidify whatever early impressions they made in their college careers and to claim attention in anticipation of the next draft. Benintendi, at the behest of Arkansas’ coaching staff, did the opposite.

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Given his injuries, the staff encouraged him to take the summer off and follow a summer workout program in an effort to avoid the sort of injuries that hampered him as a freshman. The outfielder heeded the suggestion, added 15 pounds of muscle, and by the early stages of the spring, as Benintendi started crushing pitches in game after game, the Razorbacks coaching staff recognized that they had a different animal on their hands.

“Twenty or 25 games in, we knew we had something special,” said Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn. “The third or fourth week of the season we were already starting to talk as coaches and say, ‘I don’t think we’re going to be able to get him back next season.’”

With the added strength, Benintendi discovered a previously untapped ability to drive the ball at the college level. He ended up being tied for the Div. 1 lead with 19 homers.

“I thought he could really hit and the power was the biggest thing I saw over the spring,” said Mears. “His ability to use his lower half is really phenomenal. He’s got a really solid base. He generates a lot of power with everything he’s got in his body. It’s been impressive to see how far he’s hit the ball and who he’s hit off of.”

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The long ball surge defined the 20-year-old as someone with an unusual combination of speed and power, a particularly noteworthy combination given that he can fly. Mears clocked Benintendi from home to first at 4.0 seconds – a plus time for a lefthander getting down the line, and an indication that he has the speed to make an impact both on the bases and in center field.

But even if he settles into life as someone who drives the ball into gaps with low double-digits home run totals (his power is mostly to the pull side, and likely will be hampered by Fenway’s right field), Benintendi showed tremendous aptitude as a hitter during his sophomore year that convinced Mears and a succession of Red Sox talent evaluators – including amateur scouting director Mike Rikard, national crosschecker John Booher, regional crosschecker Jim Robinson, and VP of amateur and international scouting Amiel Sawdaye – that he belonged near the top of their draft board.

The expectation is that Andrew Benintendi will sign with the Red Sox this summer, with talks commencing after Arkansas completes its run in the College World Series.
The expectation is that Andrew Benintendi will sign with the Red Sox this summer, with talks commencing after Arkansas completes its run in the College World Series.(AP)

Mears saw Benintendi navigate through impressive at-bats against dominating LSU freshman Alex Lange, fouling off tough pitches before hitting a seed to the opposite field. In a game against Tennessee, Mears saw him deliver excellent plate appearances both against a crafty lefthander who could locate and mix his pitches as well as against another pitcher with 94 mph power stuff.

Van Horn noted with some amazement that Benintendi’s sophomore campaign was characterized not by a scorching hot streak but instead by consistent excellence, with his average floating between .380 and .400 for most of the year in a killer conference.

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Moreover, he demonstrated a diverse skill set with strong grades across the board. The Sox see him as a smaller player with twitchy wrists that allow him to drive the ball to all fields (a useful attribute for a potential future residence for a lefthanded hitter at Fenway).

He grades as a plus hitter with plus plate discipline, along with plus speed and centerfield defense as well as the intangibles. Despite his huge home run totals this year, he projects to have average power – making him the same sort of well-rounded player that Van Horn anticipated when he recruited Benintendi to Arkansas.

“The thing about Andrew that a lot of people don’t realize, he’s good at a lot of things. He’s not just a good hitter,” said Van Horn. “He’s got some power. He’s an outstanding baserunner. He has a really good feel on the bases for stealing bases. He’s very fast. He’s an outstanding defender. He’s got a strong arm and it’s accurate. He’s got a lot of tools. I think he’ll move quick through the minor leagues. He just has a lot of baseball instincts. He’s a great player.”

As Mears saw Benintendi handling pitchers of all flavors, he recognized a player with both a significant ceiling and, perhaps as importantly, a well-defined floor. The way Benintendi performed suggested a high probability major leaguer, particularly in light of the fact that he had more extra-base hits (35) and walks (47) than strikeouts (31).

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“He was making adjustments from at-bat to at-bat, then it was every couple of pitches, then I was seeing him make adjustments from pitch to pitch. His game awareness and ability to do things in the box over the course of the game was really impressive. The risk was less for me, given what the upside can be,” said Mears. “He has speed, he has instincts, he has game awareness. He has all the tools to stay in the middle of the field and be a major contributor. … . He’s got that rare skill set of speed, power, baseball instincts, and competitiveness.”

If there was any question about whether Benintendi would end up attracting top-pick status as a sophomore, it was answered roughly a third of the way through the season by the growing deployments of scouts and scouting directors that were tracking him. It took little time for the Sox to be convinced that he would be in their mix at No. 7.

“The leap that Andrew made is a little bit unusual. Not many guys make that type of stride from their freshman year to their sophomore year,” said Rikard. “It started to become more and more evident really as Andrew started to really perform very, very well that he could at least work his way into contention where we were considering. I think a lot of that was Andrew really earned that by really just making people take notice and performing as well as he did.”

By the time the SEC tournament rolled around, it was clear he was in the conversation for numerous teams with early picks.

“It got crazy. It got crazy,” Van Horn said of the growing scouting presence following Benintendi. “He handled it pretty well. I think the only time it bothered him a little bit was the SEC tournament, because it got ridiculous. We’d be over taking batting practice at a high school down the road and all the scouts would leave the stadium. There’d be a game going on but they’d come down to watch him take batting practice. He got done and they’d leave. There’d be 30 of them.”

Ultimately, the Sox saw a player who combined relatively high probability with impact. They’d seen him perform against top college pitching and consistently improve. They’d seen the secondary skills to permit him to be an impact player if he hits, and at least a useful big leaguer if his offense doesn’t take in the fashion that they anticipate.

The combination – one that, in some ways, is the converse of what led the Sox to high schoolers with their last two picks at No. 7, lefthander Trey Ball in 2013 and outfielder Trot Nixon in 1993 – was convincing to the Sox once the first six picks came off the board.

“He’s someone who’s always played at the highest level of competition that’s been available to him, whether it’s been in high school or college and put that together with his performance, his physical skills and getting to know him as a person as we were able to do this spring, just throw it all together and when it got time to our pick at seven, he was the top player on the board,” said Sox GM Ben Cherington. “It was obvious who we were taking. We’re really excited to take him.”

While Benintendi’s emergence as one of the top college players in the country as a sophomore might make it seem as if the Sox are taking a risk on a player without a track record, that’s not quite accurate. Instead, in many respects, the Sox have a lengthy history on Benintendi and understand precisely how he achieved his breakout.

“He had everything he needed, except he needed to gain some strength,” said Pyle, the Red Sox arera scout who saw Benintendi as a high school senior in 2013. “I don’t recall exactly what I put into my report in 2013, but I put in there that he has all the tools to become a really good player. He’s definitely way stronger than he was in high school and all the other tools have gotten better as well. It doesn’t surprise me that he’s an elite player, and I’m sure I put that in the report, but it was all projection in high school because it was based on him growing into that body a little more and getting more tools with that added strength.”

Benintendi’s selection – with the expectation that he will sign this summer, with talks commencing after Arkansas completes its run in the College World Series – represents just the beginning, of course. There is plenty that lies ahead in his player development, new challenges about how his skill set will transition as he moves forward.

But for now, the Red Sox can permit themselves a moment to imagine they’ve landed player who will be worthy of his historic standing among Red Sox college draftees.

Big man on campus
Where Andrew Benintendi ranks among Sox 1st rounders out of 4-year college programs
Year Pick Name Pos WAR
2015 7 Andrew Benintendi OF 0 (not yet signed)
1988 12 Tom Fischer LHP 0 (never reached big leagues)
1994 12 Nomar Garciaparra SS 44.2
1998 12 Adam Everett SS 12.6
1969 13 Noel Jenks OF 0 (never reached big leagues)
1984 14 John Marzano C 0.3
1975 15 Otis Foster 1B 0 (never reached big leagues)
2003 17 David Murphy OF 10.8
1981 19 Steve Lyons SS 2
1983 19 Roger Clemens RHP 140.3
2011 19 Matt Barnes RHP 0.3
1974 20 Eddie Ford SS 0 (never reached big leagues)
2010 20 Kolbrin Vitek 2B 0 (never reached big leagues)
1989 23 Mo Vaughn 1B 27
1991 23 Aaron Sele RHP 20.6
2005 23 Jacoby Ellsbury OF 25.9
2012 24 Deven Marrero SS 0 (in Triple A)
1982 26 Jeff Ledbetter 1B 0 (never reached big leagues)
2005 26 Craig Hansen RHP -1.9
2006 28 Daniel Bard RHP 4.3
1989 29 Kevin Morton LHP 0.4
2012 31 Brian Johnson LHP 0 (in Triple A)
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference.com

Alex Speier can be reached at alex.speier@globe.com. Follow him on twitter at @alexspeier.