CINCINNATI – Former Madeira High star Andrew Benintendi has been on the fast track to the major leagues since he was drafted in the first round just a year ago.
But this wasn't just fast – this was faster-than-a-speeding-bullet fast.
Not even the 22-year-old outfielder imagined he would be making his Boston Red Sox debut Tuesday night. (He went 0-for-2 as a late-inning replacement.) Or getting his first MLB start Wednesday in Seattle, where his high school idol, Ken Griffey Jr., launched his Hall of Fame career. (He singled twice in three at-bats). Benintendi's parents, Chris and Jill, and other family members flew from Cincinnati for the occasion.
“It’s something I’ve dreamed of since I was a kid and to be here is an incredible feeling," said Benintendi, latest in the long, proud line of major leaguers to come out of the Cincinnati area. He's No. 318, following Kyle Schwarber of the Cubs last year.
It's been an incredible 72 hours for one of baseball's highest-rated prospects (as high as No. 3 on some lists). A few days ago, the left-handed hitter was tearing up Double-A playing for the Portland (Maine) Sea Dogs. At the same time, his name was prominently mentioned in trade talk with the Chicago White Sox for their ace, Chris Sale.
Imagine the Red Sox brass debating whether to move Benintendi (and other prospects) for Sale, which would just about lock up the AL East title, and deciding, nah, we're keeping Benintendi. Not only keeping him, but calling him up without a single at-bat in Triple-A – leaping that tall building in a single bound.
By all indications, this is not a typical late-season, fill-out-the roster call-up. The Red Sox figure Benintendi is ready to help them win a division title this year – and more in the future.
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"Our people kept coming up and saying, 'We think he can play at the big-league level and we think he's ready,'" said Dave Dombrowski, Red Sox president of baseball operations. "It really came down to, we think he can come up here and contribute to the club and help us win. And that's important at this time."
The remarkable thing is Benintendi convinced the Red Sox he was ready in just 151 minor-league games – only 63 in AA. Others have skipped Triple-A, but it's rare. Griffey Jr. did after only 129 games in the minors. Pete Rose did, but he played 354 minor-league games. Barry Larkin played 175 games in the minors - 103 in AAA - before he got to the majors.
Benintendi got off to a slow start in Double-A but he hit 295/.357/.515. More impressive was his line from the last month: .354/.420/.667.
So grateful to everyone in the @PortlandSeaDogs organization for all the support, can't thank you enough!
— Andrew Benintendi (@asben16) August 2, 2016
Compare him to Jesse Winker, the Reds' top OF prospect. Winker, also 22, is hitting .289/.377/.366 in his first season at Triple-A Louisville, but the Reds aren't showing any signs of bringing him up.
The difference, besides front-office thinking, might be in their upbringing. Winker was a first-round draft choice out of high school in 2012 and is playing in his fifth minor-league season.
The Reds drafted Benintendi in 2013 but never had a chance to sign him. That's because Benintendi was set on going to college. He played two seasons at the University of Arkansas and won four national player of the year awards as a sophomore before turning pro.
At Madeira, Benintendi was national high school player of the year as a senior, hitting .564 with 12 home runs, 57 RBI and 38 stolen bases. He set the Ohio high school career record with 199 career runs scored and ranked second with 213 hits, fifth with 166 RBI, eighth with a .542 career batting average and 12th with 112 stolen bases.
But because he made it clear he was going to college, every team passed over him in the draft until the 31st round, when he was chosen by his hometown Reds. The Reds' selection might have been wishful thinking, but it was probably just honorary – a goodwill gesture in case we see you here again.
By the 2015 draft, though, Benintendi was rated a top-10 pick, and the Red Sox scooped him up at No. 7. The Reds, picking 11th, took Georgia high school catcher Tyler Stephenson.
Before calling him up, the Red Sox compared Benintendi to two other recent college grads who made quick leaps to the majors, Schwarber and Mets outfielder Michael Conforto, according to ESPN. Both were in Double A when they were first called up last summer.
"We had some of those same names come up in our conversations and said, 'What do you think compared to those guys?'" Dombrowski said. "Our feelings were that he could do it. Our people felt he's a good hitter, approach-wise, as those guys. Schwarber is a different type of hitter, more power-type guy. But we felt [Benintendi] would be capable of doing it."
Dombrowski went to Portland after the All-Star break to see Benintendi play first-hand. The Red Sox also sent their player personnel chief and pro scouting director to watch Benintendi in recent weeks.
"They thought he was ready," Dombrowski said. "He has a strong personality. He has a quality work ethic, good makeup. If he goes through an adjustment period, which could happen, we think he can handle that."
— Boston Globe Sports (@BGlobeSports) August 3, 2016
The Red Sox to plan ease Benintendi into his big-league career, platooning him in left field with right-handed hitting Bryce Brentz. That will be an adjustment but not a problem for Benintendi, a lifetime center fielder who played only four minor-league games in left field.
“There’s always something to work on - jumps on balls, recognizing pitches," Benintendi said.
For now, Benintendi said he's trying to keep his composure and not get caught up in the moment.
“I’m just going to go out there and contribute the best I can - stick with my game and try to get as comfortable as I can here, hopefully help the team win,” he said.