Spanning a century of Red Sox lore, the Royal Rooters have been some of the most loyal fans in all of baseball. Their deep passion for players, coaches, and the history of the Red Sox transcended the seasons of disappointment and unfulfilled promise in a seemingly eternal quest to break the “Curse of the Bambino”. During the 86 year World Series championship drought, the fans pinned their loyalties on the homegrown talent ready to emerge from the pipeline. Carl Yastrzemski, Tony Conigliaro, and Nomar Garciaparra were emblematic of the undying affinity for the budding talents in Beantown. The tradition continued with Jacoby Ellsbury, Jon Lester, and Dustin Pedroia after the Red Sox won three World Series championships since 2004. In 2015, another highly anticipated prospect is ready to take his first steps towards Yawkey Way and Landsdowne Street in the form of Golden Spikes Award winner Andrew Benintendi, who begins his pro career with the short season Lowell Spinners of the New York-Penn League.
To say Benintendi’s meteoric rise towards becoming one of the top prospects in the country is somewhat of an understatement. A native of Cincinnati, Ohio, Benintendi produced a couple of successful seasons under coach Jack Kuzniczci at Madiera High School, setting state records in both runs scored in a season and career, while finishing second in career hits.
The hometown Cincinnati Reds selected him in the 31st round of the draft in 2013, after winning the Gatorade Ohio Player of the Year award, but chose to attend the University of Arkansas. The adjustment to college baseball initially proved arduous for Benintendi, who hit just one home run in 225 at bats during his freshman year, coupled with a .276 average. The initial struggles forced Bennitendi to recommit to weight lifting and proceeded to add fifteen pounds of muscle. The changes in conditioning resulted in a slash line of .376/.488/.717, with 20 home runs, 57 runs batted in during his sophomore season and a slugging percentage nearly 500 points higher than the previous campaign.
Benintendi would go on to earn the Golden Spikes Award, college baseball’s equivalent of the Heisman Trophy for his efforts. Benintendi also became the seventh SEC player to earn National Player of the Year honors from Baseball America and suddenly shot up the Major League draft boards, eventually selected by the Boston Red Sox in the first round of the 2015 amateur draft with the seventh overall selection.
Benintendi recently spoke with Baseball Essential as he prepares to begin his professional career with the Lowell Spinners.
BASEBALL ESSENTIAL: Out of Madeira High School in Cincinnati, you were drafted by the Reds in the 31st round in 2013. Did you have any idea that you would be selected at that age especially by your hometown team and what kind of influence did Jack Kuzniczci have on your career?
ANDREW BENINTENDI: “I did not expect to be drafted. I think they (the Reds) were throwing me a bone because I live ten minutes away from the stadium. Coach Kuzniczci has done a lot for me. I learned a lot from him and he has definitely had a big influence on my career”.
BBE: As a freshman at Arkansas you seemed to wear down according your high school coaches because you played baseball year round for the first time. Do you agree with that assessment or did it take time to adjust to the level of competition?
AB: “I don’t think I wore down. I mean. It was just a big jump going from high school to playing in the SEC as a freshman. I definitely learned a lot as a freshman. I took in everything I could and tried to make the transition into my sophomore season.”
BBE: During your sophomore season, your numbers jumped significantly, batting .376 with 20 home runs and 57 runs batted in with the Razorbacks and winning the Golden Spikes Award as the top hitter in college baseball. What measures did you take in the offseason to be able to have a historic season?
AB: “I did not play summer ball because I had an injury. In the offseason I just worked out. Tried to get a lot bigger and stronger. It definitely worked out.”
BBE: What were your first reactions to being drafted by a historic franchise like the Red Sox?
AB: “It definitely meant a lot. I think they have high expectations for me and I have high expectations for myself. I plan on coming out here every day and working hard. Hopefully, I can produce the way they want to and the way I want to.”
BBE: After signing with the Red Sox, you spent a day at Fenway Park. Describe for us your visit to the Fens and which people in the organization did you get a chance to meet?
AB: “I met a lot of people. Almost everybody, I think. But that day was the first time I had ever been to Fenway and sitting right behind the plate was definitely a good experience. It is definitely going to motivate me to work harder and get there one day.”
BBE: With so many of today’s élite players being young, have you set any goals or is there anything you are making a priority to work on to set up yourself within the organization?
AB: “I don’t so. I am just trying to win games out here and play my best and hardest because you can only control so much in baseball, so I am just going to do what I can control and hopefully help the team win.”
BBE: In your first few weeks as a professional, are there any major differences you have noticed immediately between college and professional baseball?
AB: “I think the biggest thing for me is the wood bat. It took me a little bit longer than I expected to get used to the wood bat. Obviously, the metal bat has a lot more flex when you swing, so it has been tough to get adjusted to the wood bat, but I think I am getting used to it.”
BBE: Some people do not know this, but you were a star basketball player in high school, setting records for points, free throws, three pointers, and steals. What aspects of the game of basketball can translate to the baseball diamond?
AB: “I think just the quick twitch things. Playing basketball and being in condition might help with stealing bases and maybe a good jump in the outfield. I think basketball has definitely enhanced my baseball game and it has been a good thing.”
The ability to have a historic season, which outshines any comparable ones in a career can hold both considerable weight and skepticism. Doubts about repeating pass success begin to creep in the consciousness when the first slump occurs and your name is held in the same regard as superstars such as Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, and Kris Bryant.
Whether Andrew Benintendi will reach that level of accomplishment in the future remains to be seen, but his sophomore season in Arkansas put together a varying slew of opinions among scouts, some of whom wonder if he can live up to the advanced billing of a seventh overall pick after just a single season of elite production. The addition of fifteen pounds of muscle and the confidence of one of the most historic seasons in college baseball history may allow Benintendi to quickly advance through the farm system and compare favorably to Jacoby Ellsbury, based on a gap to gap swing, a quick first step, a strong defensive attributes.
“I was impressed,” Staten Island Yankees manager Pat Osborn said. “You look at him and he is not the most imposing figure, but gosh, the way the ball explodes off his bat, you can see why he was so highly thought of.”
Though Benintendi hit twenty home runs in 226 at bats last seasons, with the Razorbacks, it is more likely that home runs may come more sparingly and to his pull field, primarily in ballparks advantageous for hitters. If projections hold accordingly, Benintendi stands to become an eventual mainstay in the Boston outfield and potentially develop each of the five tools necessary to emerge as a complete major league player.