Red Sox have a new star in tow
milwaukee — Andrew Benintendi is, by the most obvious measures — including age, body mass and natural charisma — a fraction of the ballplayer, and the presence, that David Ortiz was. Ortiz, the burly designated hitter and clubhouse orator of the Boston Red Sox, famously walked away last year after 2,408 big league games and 541 big league home runs. When Benintendi, a 22-year-old outfielder who stands 5 feet 10 and 170 pounds, came to the plate in the first inning at Miller Park on Wednesday night, it marked his 66th big league game.
And yet, when the Red Sox, mired in a monthlong offensive funk and in desperate need of a spark, decided to make a major, midstream lineup change last weekend, they didn’t hesitate to hand over the cleanup spot — the spot filled for much of the previous four seasons by Ortiz — to the youngster Benintendi. In four games in the four hole, he went 8 for his first 18 with three doubles, a homer, four walks and six RBI. His season slash line, even after going 0 for 11 the past three days, is .302/.373/ .460. At one point last Sunday, the Minnesota Twins walked him intentionally to pitch to Hanley Ramirez.
It can’t be long now until Benintendi starts going by “Little Papi,” right?
Asked if it was a difficult decision to throw a 22-year-old kid who was in Class A just 12 months ago into the cleanup spot of a slumping lineup — on a team with World Series aspirations, no less, in a market where the media is unrelenting and the fans expect instant success — Red Sox Manager John Farrell explained Benintendi is simply different.
“You ask yourself, ‘Is the player telling you through his actions that he’s ready for more?’ ” Farrell said. “In his case, it was yes. It became very clear early on this is a naturally gifted player who plays the game at a very even temperament. We make a little bit of a change [to the lineup], and he’s taken off. He’s a unique young player, a damn good one.”
At the time of Boston’s lineup shakeup — the other major component of which was Mookie Betts’s move from third to leadoff — the Red Sox were averaging just 3.8 runs per game, the fourthworst offense in the game and a run and a half below their major-league-leading 2016 production. But they scored 11 runs in their first game with the reconfigured lineup, then 17 the next game and seven the game after that.
“Just a matter of time,” Benintendi said with a shrug.
The Red Sox have operated for the entire season in something akin to survival mode — with much of their energy focused on simply riding out a rash of injuries, a plague of influenza and other assorted maladies and controversies. They still have eight players on the disabled list, including no fewer than three third basemen. A pair of unsightly losses to the Milwaukee Brewers on Tuesday and Wednesday had left them just a game above .500, at 17-16, and five games behind the first-place Baltimore Orioles and New York Yankees in the American League East.
And yet, there is another view of the Red Sox: that of a sleeping giant that is slowly coming to life.
Around the same time the Red Sox offense was getting its groove back, veteran lefty David Price, shelved since February with an elbow injury, was ramping up his throwing program and pointing himself toward a rehabilitation assignment that, according to Farrell, will begin Sunday at Class AAA Pawtucket. If all goes well, the Red Sox could have Price, the 2012 AL Cy Young Award winner, pitching for them by the end of the month, joining a rotation that also includes 2016 AL Cy Young winner Rick Porcello and 2015 AL strikeout king Chris Sale.
“By no means do we feel like we’re stemming the tide until David’s return,” Farrell said. “That would suggest that David’s going to be the key for us and we’re going to take off. We’re going to get a really good pitcher back to us at some point in the near future, but we still have other areas we have to address . . . . There are a number of things starting to come together, and David’s return is one. The way the offense has started to turn the corner here in the last week, that’s been a strong positive.”
Red Sox management opened itself up to scrutiny this offseason by focusing largely on run prevention — trading four prospects to the White Sox for Sale and adding a Gold Glove first baseman in veteran Mitch Moreland — while doing next to nothing to replace Ortiz’s bat in the middle of their lineup. That scrutiny only grew when the offense sputtered its way through April.
“This was a team that [in 2016] outscored the next-best [American League] team by 100 runs,” Farrell said. “And we felt like, even with [Ortiz’s] absence, the addition of Mitch and with the upgrades in the pitching, the net would remain the same. So hopefully we’re moving toward that.”
Where would they be without Benintendi? It’s not a question the Red Sox want to contemplate. The former top-rated prospect in baseball is now leading the team in almost every meaningful offensive category. He is, at the moment, the best player on the Red Sox.
If there is something in baseball that Benintendi is unable to handle, the Red Sox have yet to find it, and not from lack of trying. When they first called him up last August in the midst of a pennant race — after just 63 games above A ball — the Red Sox batted him almost exclusively in the eighth and ninth spots. But by this Opening Day, he was hitting second. And a month in came the shift to cleanup.
“What we found out in a short period of time [was], regardless of the setting, the stage of the postseason, or the very early days of a major league career, to different spots in the lineup, what he’s capable of doing doesn’t change,” Farrell said. “That’s a credit to him — to not be distracted by the moment or the place in the lineup.”
He certainly doesn’t appear distracted or overwhelmed by the moment. At his locker before Wednesday night’s game, Benintendi’s answers to questions about his rapid rise through the system, his recent hot streak and his move to the cleanup spot were all met with the verbal equivalent of a giant shrug.
“It’s just a spot,” Benintendi said of batting cleanup. “I think everybody on our team can hit anywhere in the lineup. For me, the process doesn’t change. I definitely can’t replicate what David did.”
Maybe Benintendi can’t replicate Ortiz’s production, let alone his massive presence, but through the first six weeks of 2017, he has done a fairly serviceable impression.
Rookie Andrew Benintendi, above, came along at a perfect time for the Red Sox, but he said, “I definitely can’t replicate what David [Ortiz] did.”