This is the last day of Andrew Benintendi's first year in the Red Sox system. It has been a good one.
Since making the jump to professional ball, Benintendi has hit .312/.391/.523 in 478 at bats. He has drawn 62 walks while striking out just 55 times, hit 15 homers despite questions over his power translating to wooden bats, and has stolen 23 bases in 31 attempts. All this while moving up through four different levels. Even though the Red Sox picked seventh, they would have no chance at him if the 2015 draft was done over today.
But still, he has yet to make the greatest jump of all: from minors to majors. Let me be very clear: this is not a surprise, or a negative, or anything of the sort. Going from Lowell to Boston in the span of a year only happens with rehab assignments. For Benintendi to be in Boston (or rather, St. Pete) today, he probably would have to have hit 1.000 in the intervening months.
The question is when he will make that jump. And frankly, that question gets less and less clear by the day.
Usually a strong performance would have the opposite effect, keeping everything quietly on-track. For Benintendi that would likely mean something like a late-2017 Xander Bogaerts call-up. A good 2.25-year trip through the minors for a college player is basically par for the course.
But for Benintendi, the situation feels different. And the only way I can think to describe it is that it's as though the Red Sox still have never quite found the level where he actually belongs. It clearly wasn't Lowell, Greenville, or Salem. At no point in his trip through those three levels of the minors did he ever show any signs of struggling. Granted, this isn't the most shocking turn of events. Andrew Benintendi was the most valuable player in college baseball in 2015. For an advanced college player, Greenville shouldn't be all that hard.
The real challenge was always likely to be the jump to Portland. Double-A is where the pitchers clearly separate themselves from even relatively high-level college competition. It's the major leagues of the minor leagues, and the point where many prospects show they just can't cut it.
If Benintendi had been fringe-average for awhile and only really conquered Double-A early in 2017, nobody would have blinked an eye. Certainly nobody was surprised or worried when his May debut led to a .213/.255/.277 batting line in his first 12 games. The only thing Benintendi had proven was that he was a real human player, and not simply the concept of hitting given physical form.
On June 1st, Benintendi went 0-for-4, droppnig his OPS to .491. Since that point, he has hit .329/.384/.543, culminating in a four-hit performance last night against the Trenton Thunder. About the only thing you can say for opposing pitchers during this stretch is that they've finally managed to strike him out more times than they've walked him. So much for being challenged.
The way the Red Sox have traditionally handled their prospects, there would seem to be no chance that Andrew Benintendi would see the majors in 2016, even with the Red Sox in need of a left fielder. And I am absolutely the last person to ever advocate for a Double-A-to-MLB jump. But if there's been a Red Sox prospect in the last decade who at least deserves consideration for that sort of move, Benintendi is the one. Those two weeks to start his Double-A career are just not all that convincing when placed against what he's done since. It still feels like they haven't really found where he actually belongs.
Just how bad are the Red Sox?
The Red Sox seem so bad of late that it's almost difficult to countenance making improvements. But are they really as bad as they seem, or are they just a piece or two away from being good again?
If that's the case, it leaves only two possibilities: Pawtucket, and Boston. And the thing about the jump to Pawtucket is that it's just not all that significant. Mookie Betts didn't even play there for a month before getting pushed into service in Boston. This is not to say that Benintendi is ready for the majors just yet. Only that it's not terribly unreasonable to think he might actually be deserving of the opportunity to prove that he is, especially if he keeps up his recent pace for another couple of weeks.
Whether Benintendi is or is not afforded that opportunity in 2016, though, he's certainly put the Red Sox in great position when it comes to filling left field for 2017. In a world where Benintendi isn't cutting his way through the minors so convincingly, but simply being your usual highly-ranked prospect, they might be in the awkward position of trying to fill their left field vacancy without blocking Benintendi. After all, with Bradley and Betts in center and right, there's no other outfield position opening up anytime soon.
But by accelerating his own timetable, Benintendi has left them without too much to worry about. They could take a flier on someone looking for a "prove it" contract, or find someone halfway between a starting and bench role like Chris Young. Maybe the Red Sox trade for Jay Bruce in 2016 knowing that if he falls back to his 2014-15 levels, Benintendi is just a phone call away. Or maybe they just tell Benintendi it's his time to shine and have him open the year in left field. All those options are on the table thanks to the year he's had.
At the end of the day, the Andrew Benintendi era will come when it comes. It relies on too many variables, including the whims of Dave Dombrowski, to make any sort of reliable guess. But what we can say is that the window has been thrown fairly wide open in this past month. Benintendi has adjusted to Double-A faster than could reasonably have been expected of him, and with that representing the last major jump before reaching the majors, the idea of Benintendi making it to Fenway little more than a year after he was drafted no loner seems so crazy.