FORT MYERS, Fla. — He is taking over left field at Fenway Park — a precious piece of real estate that was patrolled continuously by Hall of Famers Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, and Jim Rice for almost 50 years of the 20th century. He has played all of 34 games in the big leagues and already he is on the cover of Sports Illustrated. He is a consensus pick to be American League Rookie of the Year in 2017.
He is Andrew Benintendi, the Next Big Thing in Boston baseball.
The Red Sox are loaded with young stars. Mookie Betts was runner-up for MVP last year. Twenty-four-year-old All-Star shortstop Xander Bogaerts already has a championship ring and a .320 season on his résumé. The Sox rotation has Cy Young past (David Price), present (Rick Porcello), and future (Chris Sale). All these players have achieved great success at the big league level.
Benintendi is different. There is every indication he can be a baseball superstar, but we just don’t know yet. His 2016 sample was spectacular, but short, almost Garoppolo-esque. Now Sox fans are going to have a chance to watch Benintendi every day, batting second, playing left field, and it’s an exciting prospect. While Betts, Bogaerts, and Sale have established résumés, Benintendi remains infinite. He has a chance to burst on the scene already a legend — a well-washed phenomenon (thank you, Joan Baez). He could be the next Yaz, the next Brady Anderson, or the next Dwayne Hosey. We just don’t know.
Benintendi reminds me of a lot of guys. He is short and compact, and he stands with his hands on his hips a lot, like a latter-day Yaz. He’s fluid and rarely gets fooled on a pitch, like a young Freddy Lynn. He has the best hair of any Sox outfielder since Johnny Damon. When he got the call-up last August, Sox hitting coach Chili Davis said, “He looks like freakin’ Marty McFly, but the ball jumps off his bat.’’
The softspoken Benintendi might even remind you of the actor who played young Archibald “Moonlight” Graham in “Field of Dreams.’’
The kid certainly makes baseball look easy. Which it is not.
In the Sox clubhouse at JetBlue Park Saturday morning, I asked Benintendi if baseball is easy or hard.
“It’s hard,’’ he insisted. “It’s a game of failure and ups and downs. It’s tough. The average pitcher now throws about 95 or 96.’’
Good answer. Baseball is very, very hard.
Benintendi is only 5 feet 9 inches (“I’m still waiting for my growth spurt”) and the short guys often get ignored at amateur showcases. Not this kid. Gifted with speed, power, and unusual hand-eye coordination, he excelled at every amateur level. He played in a Little League tournament in Cooperstown when he was 10. He played center field his whole life and pitched a little until his junior year of high school. He was Ohio’s high school Gatorade Player of the Year in 2013 and was drafted by the Reds. He averaged 25 points per game in high school basketball and was the Cincinnati Enquirer’s Division 3 co-player of the year. He was recruited by all the top baseball schools, chose Arkansas, and was the SEC’s player of the year and won the Golden Spikes Award as the nation’s top amateur. The Red Sox made him the seventh overall pick of the 2015 draft.
Did he ever struggle at this game? At any level?
“I wouldn’t say I ever really struggled,’’ he answered. “But I didn’t play up to my expectations my freshman year at Arkansas. I hit like .275 and I’ve never hit like that before.’’
He moved up quickly in the Sox organization, playing in Lowell, Greenville, Salem, and Portland before the Sox called him to the big leagues Aug. 2. He had no Triple A experience and only 63 games at Double A when he reported to the Red Sox clubhouse in Seattle. That’s like enrolling at Harvard during your sophomore year of high school. Making things even tougher, the Sox put him in left field. Benintendi had played only four games in left field in his life before he wandered out to left at Safeco Field.
Despite all of the above, the transition was seamless. Benintendi was major league-ready from Day One and hit .295 with two homers and 14 RBIs in 34 games. He looked like he belonged. Every moment.
“We were going to just use him against righthanded pitchers, but next you know, five days later, he was in the everyday lineup,’’ said Sox manager John Farrell. “He has overall calmness in the batter’s box and an ability to not show any panic as he gets deep in counts. He has a high-contact rate for a lefthanded hitter. I think he’s a pretty unique young player who plays the game at an even pace, pretty gracefully. He’s got a beautiful natural swing and he’s got the ability to hit the ball to all fields.’’
Benintendi enters this season ranked as the No. 1 prospect in baseball by Baseball America. The vaunted hardball publication also lists Benintendi as the best hitter for average, best athlete, best defensive outfielder, and having the best strike-zone discipline in the Sox farm system.
Sox fans know about his defense. Benintendi’s home run takeback catch in Tampa was the defensive highlight of the Boston season. He missed some games after hurting his knee running the bases but came back for the playoffs and hit a homer off Trevor Bauer in his first postseason at-bat. He batted .333 in the Cleveland series.
“That was awesome,’’ Benintendi recalled. “I always watched the playoffs growing up and it was great to be in that environment. It was good to get my feet wet.’’
Benintendi put on 15-20 pounds of muscle during the offseason. By design.
“I worked out and ate a lot,’’ he said. “I’ve noticed it at the plate. My exit velocities are a lot higher and I’ve noticed some balls I’ve hit to left-center have gone further. That can play a big part when you are hitting off that wall at Fenway.’’
Is he still as fast?
“I think so,’’ he said. “I think I’ve kept my speed.’’
Like a lot of the Sox’ young stars, Benintendi is quiet, polite, and a tad boring.
“Boring? That’s kind of like my personality, I guess,’’ he offered. “I’m not a huge talker.’’
No problem. A lifetime around the game teaches us that the best players usually can’t explain how they are able to do what they do. This kid is really going to be fun to watch.