After I wrote my Royals PECOTA Projections analysis yesterday, I was ready to get ready for bed, knowing that I was going to go back into school after teaching virtually the entire week. Of course, last evening, things blew up on my Twitter, as the baseball world made the following announcement:
The deal was a huge one for Royals fans, not to mention, unexpected, as the Royals hadn’t really made a major move since signing Carlos Santana back in December. Dayton Moore this off-season had advocated the need for acquiring a left-handed bat to boost their lineup often this Winter to the media. That being said, after the most logical (and Royals-connected) target Jurickson Profar re-signed with the Padres, things seemed dire for Moore this Winter. Free agent options in the Royals’ price range like Robbie Grossman, Eddie Rosario, David Dahl, and Kyle Schwarber signed elsewhere, and though the Royals seemed linked to Yasiel Puig, it ended up fizzling out as quickly as it developed .
However, the Royals’ acquisition of former Red Sox outfielder Andrew Benintendi is a shot in the arm for this Royals club and fan base. Not only do the Royals get a productive outfielder who will immediately boost the lineup, but they also acquired a fan favorite in Boston who undoubtedly will make a positive impact in the clubhouse, especially for the younger players in the organization. Granted, the Royals may have Benintendi for only two more seasons, as he will be eligible for free agency after 2022. That being said, this acquisition not only makes the Royals more competitive in the AL Central immediately, but also keeps the door open for some interesting possibilities both now and down the road, which should make Royals fans optimistic.
Hence, let’s take a look at what the Royals gained in the Benintendi trade, and how it will affect the club both in the short as well as long term.
First off, there is no question that Benintendi has struggled with injury the past couple of seasons. He only played in 138 games in 2019, mostly due to a variety of different injuries in August and September that affected him down the stretch. Due to those injuries, Benintendi saw his wRC+ go from 123 in 2018, a career high, to 101, according to Fangraphs, which was around his 2017 first full-season levels.
In 2020, injury and slump affected him even more, as Benintendi only played in 14 games, and posted a 44 wRC+ and .103/.314/.128 slash in 52 plate appearances. Of course, that’s an incredibly small sample, and considering how his season was cut short, it’s unfair to think that his 2020 campaign is indicative of anything substantial for 2021. Nonetheless, his regression in 2019, even if some of it was due to injury, could be concerning to Royals fans who may think Benintendi may have not been worth what the Royals lost (Khalil Lee and Franchy Cordero, for now) in yesterday’s trade.
For those who are doubters, I would say this: Benintendi is the kind of left-handed bat this Royals team needs, especially in the wake of the “Alex Gordon era” in left field.
Improving the lineup’s ability to get on base was a goal of Moore this off-season, and the Royals improved their plate discipline and batting eye significantly with the acquisition of Santana, a walk-machine in Cleveland and Philadelphia. Furthermore, Benintendi boosts the lineup’s plate discipline significantly, especially when one take a look at his plate discipline metrics.
According to Fangraphs, Benintendi has a career BB/K ratio of 0.55, and a BB/K ratio of 0.57 during a three-year stretch from 2017-2019 with the Red Sox (which relatively full seasons). BB/K ratio is normally a good indicator of batting eye, and can usually be a good quick measure to determine a batter’s overall discipline at the plate. Over that 2017-2019 time period, I dug into some data for Royals outfielders, and created my own Google Sheets data set, based on Fangraphs data, that included not only Royals outfielders who accumulated 150 or more PA, but also Benintendi as a member of the Red Sox during that time fame as well.
When included with Royals outfielders who accumulated 150 PA or more from 2017-2019, Benintendi would rank as follows (and this was a sample of 14 qualified Royals OF over that time):
- No. 1 in BB/K ratio.
- No. 2 in BB% (behind only Jorge Soler by .50 points).
- No. 6 in lowest K%
- No. 4 in wOBA and wRC+ (behind only Soler, Lorenzo Cain, and Whit Merrifield).
- No. 2 in ISO (behind only Soler).
That plate patience also shows in his Swing-Take data via Baseball Savant. Here is a glimpse of his Swing Take chart and how many runs he generated over his career:
As you can see, Benintendi shows a keen batting eye and generates a lot of extra runs in those chase and waste zones, which has been a sharp contrast to Royals hitters the past two seasons. To compare, in 2019, only Whit and Soler had double digit positive runs in the waste zone in 2019 out of qualified Royals hitters, according to Savant. Furthermore, only Soler had a higher run total than Benintendi in the chase zone as well that season (Soler had 26; Whit was tied with Benintendi with 18).
And that was in a “regression” year for Benintendi. If he was on the Royals in 2018, which was his best overall year as a professional (he posted a 4.4 fWAR that year, according to Fangraphs), not only would he lead in runs in the chase and waste zones, but he would also have the best overall run mark by 19 runs as well, according to Savant (Whit led the Royals in Swing-Take runs with 15 that seasons).
Of course, there are concerns about Benintendi’s overall profile that should not be totally ignored. It will be interesting to see if his power transitions to Kauffman Stadium, especially on a home run-end. Based on 2019 expected home run data from Baseball Savant, only 7 of his 13 home runs hit in 2019 would have been home runs in Kauffman Stadium (unlike Fenway, where he would have had 16 home runs, had he played all 162 games in Boston). Thus, the idea of him being the possible 20-20 threat that he was back in 2017 and 2018 may be hard to do in the more spacious Kauffman. Nonetheless, though his home run numbers could possibly be deflated in Kansas City (especially with a deadened ball), he could turn into a doubles-and-triples hitter in his new home surroundings, as Moore suggested in the Royals official announcement:
“A lot of people that I’ve spoken to that are familiar with him talk about how he loves Kauffman Stadium,” Moore said. “He loves to hit in Kauffman Stadium. Obviously, it’s a big ballpark, and we think he’s going to be just a doubles machine here. He’s got a chance to really hit for average and wear out those gaps. He’s got a lot of naturalist to his swing. He can go the other way extremely well, he can pull the ball.”“Royals land Benintendi in 3-team trade” by Anne Rogers; Royals.com
PECOTA projects Benintendi to be a 101 DRC+ hitter and 1.2 WARP player, which would certainly be an improvement to the lineup, but would still put him under hitters like Whit (105 DRC+) and even Hunter Dozier (104 DRC+). However, while it may not be an immediate boost on projections alone, Benintendi has a strong likelihood to surpass those conservative PECOTA expectations in Kansas City in 2021, especially if he’s fully healthy, something he hasn’t been since August of 2019.
Therefore, Royals fans know what they are getting in Benintendi. But what are they missing out on?
While the Royals will still be giving up two players to be named later (likely lower level guys in the system), the main players lost in the trade that have tempered some Royals fans’ excitement were outfielders Khalil Lee and Franchy Cordero, both high-upside, but flawed outfielders who were expected to contribute in some shape or form during the 2021 season.
Of the two, Lee is perhaps the biggest loss, especially since he had just been added to the 40-man and had always been younger than the competition at nearly every level he played at in the Minors. As I talked about before on this blog, Lee had a strong ability to take a walk in the Minors, but he often put himself in bad counts, and his strikeout rate has always been abnormally high at nearly every level due to his “overly selective” approach. Lee has displayed some defensive and base stealing ability over his career, especially last year in Double-A Northwest Arkansas. However, I do think his base-stealing prowess is a bit overblown: prior to 2019, he had never stolen more than 20 bases in a year, and in 2017, when he did steal 20, he was caught stealing 18 times, not exactly a great success rate.
The reason I am bringing this up is not necessarily to bash Lee, but rather point out that the loss of Lee can be mitigated by other options in the Royals system currently. Nick Heath may be a better base-stealer than Lee, and he’s on the 40-man roster. Kyle Isbel made tremendous gains last Summer and may be more liked as an option than Lee, (as I mentioned in a post not too long ago). Erick Pena has the most upside of any outfielder in the Royals system and could see his stock skyrocket once he debuts Stateside this year. Seuly Matias has the most power of any outfielder and showed progress in the Dominican Winter League (1.189 OPS in 18 plate appearances). And Royals fans shouldn’t forget about Edward Olivares, who is projected to have an 89 DRC+ by PECOTA, which could make him an intriguing fourth outfielder in KC in 2021.
Thus, while Lee certainly was a promising talent, he played at a position where the Royals had plenty of depth in their farm system.
As for Cordero, I certainly was high on him as well, and I know he’s been a StatCast darling for a while. That being said, he’s around the same age as Benintendi, is only one year behind Benintendi in arbitration, and while Benintendi has 1,837 plate appearances under his belt, Cordero only has 315 plate appearances. Yes, Cordero has had some massive hype in the past, but Benintendi also has had plenty of hype as well worth noting. Benintendi has been a Top 5 prospect in all of baseball, while Cordero has never really been Top 5 in his own team’s system.
Thus, the Royals got a much surer thing to handle left field in Benintendi. While Cordero is a fun player, and I do hope he finds a place in Boston, Royals fans should definitely temper their sadness over his loss.
If he was so valuable and such a sure thing in the outfield, he wouldn’t have been traded by two clubs in less than a year.
Overall, the Royals boosted their offense and outfield in the short and long term, and that should be something Royals fans should be excited about. Benintendi will make this team better in the win column, and should be a professional presence that will win over fans and younger players alike. Just seeing all the Red Sox fans on Twitter remark their “fondness” over “Benny” just shows what kind of player the Royals will be getting. After all, one didn’t see Dodgers or Indians fans show the same kind of appreciation of Puig once he left their respective clubs.
While Benintendi may be a two-year project, he doesn’t block things in the outfield in the long-term. Isbel may be on his way to KC sooner than Royals fans may think, and as stated before, Pena could emerge as a top-100 prospect in all of baseball after next year if he lives up to his hype. The Royals need an option to boost the club in the short term, but not weigh things down on a multi-year basis, and Benintendi and his contract status give the Royals that kind of flexibility. After all, look at how albatross contracts in Anaheim and Detroit (Pujols and Cabrera) have weighed down those respective franchises, even now. The Royals certainly do not need that, especially as they are trying to turn the corner as a franchise. Furthermore, the fact that the Royals are only $1 million higher in payroll than their 2020 pro-rated rate shows that the club is exercising sensible spending in building this club.
This off-season, I was perturbed by how the Royals couldn’t get free agents, even though the Royals had more financial and playing time flexibility than other clubs. The main reason is probably this: the Royals aren’t a winner now, and free agents ultimately want to play for winners at the highest possible price.
Thus, the Royals need to starting winning, and seriously, if they want to be in the discussion for free agents in the next couple of years. Benintendi, as well as Minor and Santana, ultimately help the Royals better do that in the next two years, and even if the Royals do not make the playoffs next year or in 2022, they will be better suited to get free agents if they are a 78-85 win club rather than 65-72 win one. The Reds proved that last off-season, and the Royals also proved that after the 2013, when they became a winning club again. Even though they didn’t make the playoffs that season, the turnaround had an impression on available players, and they were able to acquire key players like Jason Vargas, Omar Infante, and Nori Aoki, who were key in them ending their playoff drought in 2014 (along with their homegrown talent).
Benintendi may not be a long-term option in Kansas City. But he doesn’t need to be. He just needs to help this club be a competitive one for the next two years. He, as well as Minor and Santana, were acquired to help the Royals get into that upper third of the division, and be a .500 ball club or slightly better for 2021 and 2022. A playoff appearance would be awesome, but if the Royals are winning 80-85 games each year over the next couple of years, the deal would have been worth it, even if Benintendi signs with another club in free agency after 2022.
Because by then, KC will be a winner, and they’ll be able to acquire a replacement for Benintendi in the lineup more easily. Only this time, they’ll be able to do so through free agency, and won’t have to give up anything in a trade.
Which will only benefit the Royals in the long-term, since they won’t be dipping into their farm system to acquire players…
And that ability will make them a more consistent winner in the future as well.
(Photo Credit: Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)