Benintendi is surging…but will the Royals make him a long-term option in left field?

The Royals are currently 64-77 going into Saturday’s game against the Minnesota Twins, and a big reason for them winning the first game of the weekend series in the Twin Cities was the performance of Andrew Benintendi:

Benintendi has been on a monster tear in September, as he is posting a .325/.372/.675 slash with an OPS of 1.047 and three home runs in 43 plate appearances. While there still are a lot of games left this month (including a weekend series in October to boot), Benintendi is certainly doing his part to finish the 2021 season strong. That is encouraging to Royals fans, who have seen his initial Royals debut as a bit of an up and down affair, and not just in terms of performance, but injuries as well.

Therefore, it is safe to say that Benintendi will be key to the Royals lineup down the stretch, especially if they want to surpass the 70-72 win projection that most experts and projection systems had for them back in Spring Training. However, a strong finish from him will also make this offseason interesting, especially since Benintendi will be a free agent after the 2022 season.

Can Benintendi make his case to Dayton Moore and the Royals front office that he can be a long-term option in left field in Kansas City? Or will Moore wait it out, and possibly look to trade him next season, especially if the Royals are not in playoff contention?

Let’s take a look at what Benintendi has done thus far this season, and whether or not he will be in the mix for an extension this offseason.

To say that Benintendi’s first season in Kansas City has been “uneven” would be putting it lightly. In May and June, it seemed like the trade for Benintendi was a steal for the Royals, especially in the midst of Franchy Cordero and Khalil Lee’s struggles in Boston and New York, respectively. After a slow start in April in which he posted a 75 wRC+, he generated a 124 wRC+ in May and 145 wRC+ in June, according to Fangraphs. Unfortunately, Benintendi injured his rib in mid-June, which put him on the shelf for the remainder of the month:

When Benintendi returned from the IL, he struggled to get back into the groove that he was in back in May and early June. In July, he posted a paltry 46 wRC+ and in August, his wRC+ resembled his April mark at 73. A big struggle for Benintendi when he returned was an over-eager approach at the plate the resulted in a lot of strikeouts, and not a lot of walks in return.

In June, he posted a season-high strikeout rate of 22.7 percent, and a walk rate of 2.7, which was a season-low (thus producing a BB/K ratio of 0.12, also a season-low). While he did improve his approach slightly in August (0.22 BB/K ratio), it still didn’t produce a whole lot at the plate, and it didn’t help that he struggled with a dislocated shoulder injury, which he played through for most of the month:

Since the start of September though, Benintendi has started to look like his early season self at the plate again. He’s improved his BB/K ratio to 0.38, which is actually his best mark in this category since May, and his seven percent walk rate is his highest percentage since April when it was 11.1 percent. That being said, the better eye at the plate is not the only positive thus far of Benintendi’s September. Additionally, he’s hitting more fly balls, and hitting those fly balls harder than ever, something that wasn’t even happening in earlier months in 2021.

According to Fangraphs Batted Ball data, Benintendi is posting a hard hit rate of 50 percent on batted balls during the month of September. This is an 18.1 percent increase from August, in addition to being 11.3 percent higher than his second-half hard hit rates, and 18.6 percent higher than his first-half hard hit rates. As a result, Benintendi has produced a lot better swings this month, including this home run off of the Orioles’ Dillon Tate at Camden Yards:

According to Savant, Benintendi is posting a career-best average exit velocity of 89.6 MPH as well as hard hit rate of 43.4 percent (Savant’s hard hit numbers often vary from Fangraphs’). Those are also promising signs that overall, Benintendi is at least hitting the ball with authority when he connects, which could bode well for future success. In addition, his barrel rate is 9.2 percent, which would also be a career-high if the season ended today.

Therefore, it could be that Benintendi is fully healthy after struggling to recover from injury in July and August, and that the September Benintendi could be a sign of what the Royals and Royals fans could expect for 2022. In addition, this recent surge could also be a sign of correction at the plate, as his wOBA (.316) is four points lower than his xwOBA (.320).

So, from an offensive end, there are a lot of signs for Royals fans to be encouraged about when it comes to what Benintendi has been doing at the plate the past couple of weeks. Granted, a concern is that Benintendi is still swinging more than he ever did during his time in Boston, which hasn’t always produced results this year. His swing rate is 53 percent, a career high, and his chase rate is 30.1 percent, which is also a career high. That is probably a big reason why his overall walk rate (6.2 percent) is the lowest it has ever been in his career.

However, a low walk rate isn’t a bad thing, especially if the strikeout rate can be relatively low as well. After all, the Royals’ lineups of 2014 and 2015 found success with low-walk, but low-strikeout approaches. Right now, the strikeout rate isn’t all that low (19.4 percent), but it is declining, which is a positive. If he can get it to the 17-18 percent range, by season’s end, that could be a promising sign that Benintendi has the potential to be a long-term option for the Royals beyond 2022.

Now, with that being mentioned, does that push Moore to pull the trigger on a Benintendi extension this offseason?

Benintendi will be entering his last year of arbitration in 2022, as he will be finishing up a two-year, $10 million deal which he inked in Boston. Thus, the Royals will have to agree to some kind of contract this offseason. It’s just a matter of whether or not it will be a one-year deal, or if it will be something more long-term.

According to Fangraphs’ value metrics, Benintendi has been worth 1.1 fWAR this year, which would equate to roughly $9.9 million in current value. Fangraphs projects Benintendi to accumulate a 0.2 fWAR for the remainder of the season, which seems low considering his recent hot streak, though his defense and baserunning have not been really great this year (he’s been worth -0.3 in baserunning runs, and -2.8 in defensive runs, according to Fangraphs’ Def). That being said, if Benintendi can finish in the 1.5 fWAR or higher range, it is likely that he would be worth a contact with a AAV (average annual value) of at least $10 million. Benintendi will only be 28-years-old after 2022, so he’s still relatively young enough where a four-to-five year deal worth $12-15 million per year could actually be worth it for any team, especially if he’s able to stay healthy.

Of course, for a small market team like the Royals, just handing out those kind of deals aren’t easy or plentiful. The Royals have already seen their extension of Hunter Dozier go disastrously south this season. They are under contract with him until at least 2024, and right now, it’s indeterminate if he will even be a guaranteed starter in 2022:

Making one big extension miss like this hurts an organization like Kansas City, but it can still be solvable, even if the Royals just have to live with Dozier’s bad money for the foreseeable future. However, two big money extensions with players who fail to live up to that promise? Well…that’s a fire-able offense, and safe to say, Moore’s hot seat will be a little warmer next season than in years past, especially with an owner in John Sherman who is committed to building a winning culture at the big league level (which wasn’t always the case with former owner David Glass).

When the Royals acquired Benintendi originally, it seemed like a slam dunk that an extension was most likely in store after this season. The Royals wouldn’t have traded for a player like him this past offseason just to have him for two years, especially for a squad that hasn’t had a winning season since 2015. The Royals know they need to build something that can be successful long-term, and investing in a Midwest guy like Benintendi makes sense (he hails from Cincinnati, but he currently resides in St. Louis), and the Royals media department seem to be promoting him in a way to build on the “Midwest-centric” image, much like they did with Alex Gordon.

It would be strange for the Royals to do all this kind of promotion to simply let him go after next season.

That being said, there is more pressure on Moore and the front office now, especially with the squad destined for another losing season, a stark contrast to the rhetoric being touted back in Spring Training.

Moore cannot afford another extension dud like Dozier.

And while Benintendi has been better recently and seems to be on track to finish the 2021 season in a strong fashion, is he worth a 3-5 year extension worth somewhere in the AAV range of $12-15 million? Is Moore ready to bet his future on Benintendi finally staying healthy for multiple seasons, and bet that this past September is a sign of things to come? Is he ready to bet that Benintendi will rebound on the basepaths and outfield defensively, especially after being subpar in both those areas in 2021 (a big reason why his fWAR is so low)?

It won’t be an easy decision for the Royals and Moore, especially with internal outfield options like Kyle Isbel and Edward Olivares available for much cheaper and longer. That being said, it is yet to be determined if Moore and the Royals have much confidence in either of them to be long-term solutions in the Royals outfield, especially in Kauffman’s spacious outfield grounds.

But if the Royals do believe in Benintendi and indeed ink him to a multi-year extension, his 2022 will have to be better than his Kansas City debut this season.

Or else 2022 could be it for Moore and this front office.

A small-market GM can’t make two bad extensions in a row, especially of that magnitude.

Photo Credit: Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

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