Tomase: Is it time for the Sox to move on from Benintendi? originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
Before writing off Andrew Benintendi forever, let's not forget what his 2020 consisted of: 39 at-bats.
That's a week and a half during a normal season, but nothing about Benintendi's latest campaign was normal -- and for reasons independent of world events.
The outfielder who should be entering his prime instead entered a tailspin. Heralded as one of the breakout performers of spring training 2.0, he hit just .103 in 14 frustrating games before landing on the injured list in early August with a strained rib cage. Expected to miss a couple of weeks, he instead never returned, and it's hard to blame anyone for shutting him down. His campaign felt distinctly beyond salvage.
The real question is what to make of his future. The Benintendi who arrived as an immediate difference-maker in 2016 before finishing second in the 2017 Rookie of the Year race feels like a distant memory. He hit the 2018 break as a borderline All-Star with 14 homers and an .897 OPS, but all Benintendi has done since is disappear.
He managed just two home runs in the second half of 2018 before hitting .268 with no homers and a .667 OPS in the playoffs (and one game-saving catch, to be fair). The 2019 season saw him devolve into an average outfielder, the kind of guy available on any Triple-A roster in America. He managed just 13 home runs, continuing a three-year decline from his high of 20 in 2017.
With a lost 2020 in the books, the Red Sox face a decision. Do they bank on Benintendi's return, or do they try to unload him for someone else's problem in a swap of change-of-scenery candidates?
The fact that we're even asking this question only three months after Benintendi's 26th birthday illustrates just how far he has fallen. He was one of the first members of the 2015 draft class to reach the big leagues, but he has since been surpassed by Alex Bregman, Walker Buehler, Mike Soroka, Brandon Lowe, and Paul DeJong, to name a few.
He's due $6.6 million in the final year of an unorthodox two-year, $10 million extension that will still leave him with one final season of arbitration eligibility in 2022 before he becomes a free agent.
If the Red Sox want to move him, they won't receive peak value, but there should still be a market for his services, particularly with his 2021 salary already locked in and affordable. What Benintendi needs is an overhaul at the plate, because the hitter who arrived four years ago with a confidently slashing stroke to all fields and above-average strike zone recognition has been replaced by a tentative check-swinger whose only value in 2020 was walking once every five plate appearances.
His strikeout rate has climbed from 16 percent in 2018 to 22.8 percent in 2019 to an unsightly 32.7 percent this year. His stroke abandoned him so thoroughly, he recorded only two line drives in 52 plate appearances. His lifetime slugging percentage of .435 is slightly below-average and inexcusable for someone with his talent.
Chaim Bloom sounded like someone willing to give Benintendi a mulligan on 2020 in his post-mortem a couple of weeks ago.
"I wouldn't factor this year into an evaluation of his talent at all," Bloom said. "This guy has great all-around ability. It's just unfortunate how the year started. He actually looked great in summer camp and then for whatever reason the season opened and he just wasn't firing on all cylinders. Had a couple bad weeks and then got hurt. So I wouldn't let that change anyone's mind. I thought he looked great coming in both in spring training and summer camp. This is a guy that has shown the ability to perform at a really high level, including in some really critical situations. Still young. Still has all that ability. It's just a shame that this year kind of got wiped out."
Still, trading Benintendi this winter could serve two purposes. For one, he could be used in a deal to acquire pitching, perhaps for another member of his free agent class, which includes arms like Pittsburgh's Joe Musgrove, Oakland's Sean Manaea, and Detroit's Michael Fulmer.
Moving him could also create an opening to pursue a free agent corner outfield upgrade, with Braves slugger Marcell Ozuna a perfect fit for Fenway Park, albeit a pricy one.
Don't be surprised, however, if the Red Sox simply stay the course and give Benintendi one more chance to reach his All-Star ceiling, because any trade of him now would not be made from a position of strength.