PORTLAND, Maine — Andrew Benintendi did not arrive alone at Hadlock Field for his Double A debut. Two companions came with him to Portland for his promotion Monday night.
The first was the slew of expectations and curiosity that comes with a spot on the fast track, the unavoidable curiosity about what a lightning quick move across three rungs of the minor league ladder means for the timing of Benintendi’s anticipated arrival in the big leagues. The second was Red Sox roving outfield coordinator Billy McMillon, a man who is wise in the ways of that hype machine after helping Mookie Betts, the last fast-tracked Red Sox prospect, in his own navigation of challenges and possibilities in Portland.
In 2014, Betts was 21 — the same age as Benintendi is now — when he breezed through Portland in 54 games and enjoyed a 23-game road stop in Triple A Pawtucket en route to a big league debut in June in Yankee Stadium. McMillon was his manager in Portland. As such, his view of whether it’s reasonable to think that Benintendi might be able to reach the big leagues this year is particularly intriguing.
“Some guys, that path is quicker. In our limited exposure with him, he’s demonstrated that he’s ready for the next challenge,” McMillon said of Benintendi, who reached Portland after just 35 games for High A Salem in which he hit .341 with a .413 OBP and .563 slugging mark. “If he comes up here and does what’s expected or what we hope, then it shouldn’t be that much of a surprise [to see him keep moving up the ladder] given how quickly some of our other guys have gone through the system. It’s a pleasure when we see that happening. We try to, as an organization, identify guys that are ready for that.
“He’s certainly ready for this challenge. The next challenge, we’ll see. I definitely don’t want to put a timetable on it or anything like that, but if he continues to put together quality at-bats and play good defense, it won’t be a surprise if that happens,” McMillon said. “If he does here what he did in High A, that’s going to be some interesting discussions that [Red Sox manager John Farrell] and [president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski] are going to have to have, trying to get this guy to help this organization out.”
In many ways, many members of the Red Sox organization would prefer not to see Benintendi in the big leagues this year. If he does move through Portland and then Pawtucket or skip straight from Double A to the big leagues, then it means the Sox have either been beset by either injuries or a lack of production in not just their big league outfielders but also in Triple A options such as Blake Swihart, Rusney Castillo, Bryce Brentz, and others.
Moreover, the Sox believe the inevitable initial big league struggle becomes vastly more challenging for players who haven’t been challenged during a blitz through the minors. Many team officials believe the struggles of Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Will Middlebrooks at the big league level were amplified by their lack of experience working their way out of slumps in Triple A.
Even so, no one in the organization has ruled out the possibility that Benintendi could reach the big leagues this year. If there is a convergence of major league need with a display of big league skills by the lefthanded hitting outfielder, then recent precedent — not just with Betts but also with players such as Mets outfielder Michael Conforto and Cubs catcher/outfielder Kyle Schwarber, both of whom zoomed through the minors in 2015, just over a year after being taken in the first round — suggests that Benintendi might not be long for Portland.
“You see another player with maybe the same kind of tools going through the system as fast as this guy is going, it makes you wonder if he can do it or not,” said Portland manager Carlos Febles. “Let’s say this guy performs the way he’s performed at Salem here at this level, then goes to Triple A and performs, what are you going to do? That’s going to be a tricky kind of situation for the front office people to make a decision. I don’t think it’s unfair [to ask if he can get to the big leagues this year]. It’s basically reality. Somebody who’s good is good.”
|Jackie Bradley Jr.
For his part, Benintendi — who went 0 for 4 with a strikeout in his Portland debut — seemed unconcerned with the question of timetables. While he acknowledges surprise at being in Portland less than a year after the Sox drafted him with the No. 7 overall pick after his sophomore year at Arkansas (“I don’t think anyone could have predicted that,” he said), the message after Sunday’s game in Salem from farm director Ben Crockett and manager Joe Oliver that he was being promoted came with a comforting chord.
“They called me in and said, ‘You’re going to go up to Portland. Just keep doing what you’re doing. Don’t try to change anything. Just play and have fun,’ ” said Benintendi. “It’s pretty simple.”
What Benintendi faces on the field is simple enough. The more complicated questions will fall to those who make the decisions about the pace at which the 21-year-old moves forward.
“He’s going to force the issue if he continues to do what he did [in Salem],” said McMillon. “I’ll be very pleased if [he gets to the big leagues on a fast track], but if it doesn’t for whatever reason, this is just one of the stepping stones. He’ll get there.”
Video: Benintendi’s first at-bat in Portland