It's time for Andrew Benintendi to become a catalyst of Red Sox offense


One by one, they've made "The Leap," whether it's Mookie Betts becoming a five-tool superstar, shortstop Xander Bogaerts emerging as a legitimate MVP threat, or third baseman Rafael Devers going supernova.

Will 2020 be Andrew Benintendi's turn?

The paths to improvement for a Red Sox team intent on slashing payroll aren't exactly plentiful, but the clearest one involves Benintendi delivering on the promise that has made him a batting champ-in-waiting since he reached the big leagues in 2016.

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He regressed significantly last year, when his power vanished and he swung through hittable pitches while looking a step slow all over the diamond. He was a Gold Glove finalist on reputation more than performance, his season perfectly captured by his OPS-plus of 100, which is exactly average. He hit a career-low .266 with only 13 homers and left for the winter knowing he needs to arrive to spring training in better shape if he wants to take that next propulsive step forward.

"Actually, Benny is in a better place, I do believe, physically," manager Alex Cora said at the winter meetings. "It's not that he was out of shape, but his body was different last year. He was stronger, and some of his moves were slower than in previous years. I don't know if he wanted to hit home runs or he felt like he lost so much weight in the previous season that he needed to show up a little bit heavier or stronger, and obviously it didn't work out."

Benintendi ranked below average in virtually every measure of physical skill, from exit velocity (40th percentile) to outs above average in the field (5th percentile) to outfield jump (27th percentile), per Baseball Savant. His bat looked slow and so did his legs.

Most surprisingly, his strikeouts soared. He and Seattle's Mallex Smith were the only two players in baseball to strike out at least 140 times without hitting even 15 homers. In today's launch angle-crazed game, strikeouts are considered an acceptable byproduct of home runs. But when the home runs don't come? Then what are you? At least Smith led the AL with 46 steals. Benintendi had 10.

"If you guys think that that's the real Benny striking out 130 times, I don't see it," Cora said. "He's a better hitter than that, and hopefully he can put the ball in play a little bit more and he can hit for average and be the athletic player we saw a few years ago.

"He's actually going back to be the athlete that we like to see," Cora added. "He's a better player. He can hit for power and hit for average. There's a few things, as far as mechanics, that we've been talking about it with (hitting coaches) Timmy (Hyers) and Peter (Fatse), and if we get there, he'll be good."

There's no overstating how significantly Benintendi can transform the lineup if he becomes an All-Star. His inability to hit out of the leadoff spot served as a drag on the entire offense last April, necessitating the return of Betts to the top spot. In a perfect world, the Red Sox would boast the toughest top five in the league with Betts, Devers, Bogaerts, J.D. Martinez, and Benintendi making life miserable on opposing staffs.

Benintendi's teammates are on board. The sweet-swinging outfielder doesn't turn 26 until July and is very much at an age where he can make the same leap as the aforementioned trio.

"I think Benny will be real good," Bogaerts said in San Diego last week. "I know last year was kind of a little bump in the road. I know when you're young, you're trying to find stuff sometimes and you try to do a little more instead of a little less, but that comes with it, man. You're just trying to figure it out, because no one wants to not perform at the level you want to. So you're obviously searching and finding for different stuff. I think he'll have a real good year. I'm not saying a Devers type of year, but I wouldn't be surprised with anything close to that. I think he has the ability for that."

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