CINCINNATI -- It’s easy to look at Andrew Benintendi and say he’s the one the Reds let get away. After all, Benintendi played his high school ball at Madeira.
The Reds didn’t let Benintendi get away. They tried and failed to sign him.
The Reds drafted him out of Madeira in 2013 in the 31st round, 945th overall. But two numbers kept him from becoming a Red: 1.2 million and 69 inches.
Benintendi wanted a $1.2 million signing bonus, and the Reds were reluctant to give that kind of money to a player who they measured at 5-foot-9.
“We really didn’t come close to signing him,” Reds scouting director Chris Buckley said. “Our local scout, Brad Meador, did an outstanding job identifying him early. We liked him as player. But we didn’t get very far down the road.”
If the Reds had known what Benintendi was going to turn out to be, they would have paid the $1.2 million in a second. Benintendi, now a member of the Red Sox, enters the 2017 season as No. 1 prospect in all baseball on ESPN and MLB.com’s list.
Benintendi is the first Cincinnati player to achieve that kind of status since Ken Griffey Jr. The contrast between how Benintendi got to the top of list and how Griffey got there illuminates the way high school players are projected.
Griffey was the No. 1 pick overall. All 30 teams would have picked him. He was the prototypical five-tool player with the prototypical body — 6-foot-3, 200 pounds — and he was as close to big league-ready as a prep player gets. One of his Seattle teammates remarked that high school cost Junior four years of big league service time.
Benintendi had better high school numbers than Griffey. He hit .500 all four years at Madeira. His senior year he hit .564 with 12 home runs, 57 RBI and 38 steals and was named the national player of the year. He was also a terrific athlete. He averaged 25 points a game in basketball. His makeup -- character, work ethic, intelligence -- were off the charts as well.
“He’s an awesome kid,” his high school coach Jack Kuzniczci said. “As good as they come.”
But he was 5-9, 150-some pounds.
“I think (scouts) were afraid of his size, and he made it clear he wouldn’t sign for less $1.2 million,” Kuzniczci said. “His parents are well-educated. They saw the value of going to college.”
The Reds passed at that price, and Benintendi went to the University of Arkansas.
He was so-so as a freshman. He hit .276 with one home run in 2014. He then made the decision that would get him where he is. Rather than play summer ball, he concentrated on weight training to get stronger.
As a draft-eligible sophomore, he hit .380 with 19 home runs and won the Golden Spikes Award, as college baseball’s top player. The Red Sox made him the seventh pick in the 2015 draft and signed him $3.6 million.
The Reds were ready to pick him again at 11th.
“We were a few picks away,” Buckley said.
Benintendi hit .313/.416./559 in two stops in the minors in 2015. Last season, he was hitting a combined .312/.378/.532 in two stops when the Boston called him up on Aug. 2. He hit .295 in 105 at-bats for Red Sox.
Buckley said players like Benintendi and Boston teammate Mookie Betts, also 5-9, are changing the way scouts look at prospects.
“Everyone wants that 6-3, 6-4 guy,” he said. “With a smaller guy, you need him to prove it to you. It’s like Mike Leake. He wanted $800,000 coming out of high school. Teams weren’t going to give that to a 5-10 right-hander. Then he went to Arizona State and was a first All-American.
“That’s one of the things that’s changing. Teams are seeing players come in all shapes and sizes.”
Benintendi will be the Red Sox left fielder and could hit in the No. 2 spot. Despite his size, scouts see him as 20-home run guy. Hitting is his best tool, but he’s also a good fielder with good speed.
It’s hard to project how good of a player Benintendi will end up becoming. But he’s already proven it’s not a good idea to underestimate him.