Baseball

The Royals Are Banking on a Benintendi Bounce

The Kansas City Royals acquired outfielder Andrew Benintendi from the Boston Red Sox on Wednesday night as part of a three-way trade that also saw the New York Mets get involved. Heading to the Mets is outfield prospect Khalil Lee, while going back to Fenway is outfielder Franchy Cordero and pitcher Josh Winckowski. Also going to the Red Sox are three players to be named later, two from the Royals and one from the Mets.

It’s easy to see why the Royals would be highly interested in Benintendi. Most of the team’s additions this winter have been veterans in smaller deals, seemingly for the purpose of prioritizing short-term wins in 2021 and perhaps snag a Wild Card spot. While I’m unconvinced that the strategy will actually bear fruit this year, this is another move consistent with that plan. Adding Benintendi to Mike Minor, Carlos Santana, Michael A. Taylor, Wade Davis, and Greg Holland makes the Royals more entertaining than they were last season. Of course, Benintendi was a much hotter property back in 2018, hitting .290/.366/.465, enough for 4.4 WAR, before slumping to a .266/.343/.431, 2.0 WAR line in 2019. 2020 was an entirely forgettable four-for-52 campaign that lasted just 14 games due to a rib cage strain.

Even giving him a full mulligan for 2020, there were already reasons to be concerned about Benintendi’s changed approach at the plate. He was more aggressive in 2019, which made sense for a contact hitter, but appeared to go far in the wrong direction. The increase in aggression was steady and seems to have backfired, with his contact rate bottoming out, resulting in a swinging strike rate that took a big jump (11.6%) over his first two full seasons (7.6% and 7.5%).

The drop-off in his performance against off-speed pitches was particularly shocking: after being ranked second to Francisco Lindor against changeups in 2018, he slipped into the bottom 10 in the league. That 18-run swing provided almost the entirety of his year-on-year dip in performance.

Kansas City is likely going to be less three true outcome-obsessed than most teams, and after years of Alex Gordon, they’re not likely to be terribly put out by a corner outfielder who doesn’t hit 30 homers a year. For the Royals, a name player with some upside remaining may simply be more enticing than a hard-hitting project or a center field prospect unlikely to excel in the majors in 2021. I suspect the Royals will be more content to steer Benintendi in a more contact-hitting direction than the average team would.

ZiPS Projection – Andrew Benintendi

Year BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB OPS+ DR WAR
2021 .252 .343 .402 503 72 127 28 4 13 57 67 124 14 103 2 1.6
2022 .249 .341 .410 490 71 122 29 4 14 57 66 125 12 104 2 1.6

ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Andrew Benintendi

Percentile BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB OPS+ WAR
90% .262 .360 .454 496 75 130 33 7 16 62 74 104 20 121 2.7
80% .257 .352 .429 499 74 128 31 5 15 60 71 111 17 112 2.2
70% .255 .348 .419 501 74 128 30 5 14 59 69 118 16 109 1.9
60% .255 .347 .416 502 73 128 29 5 14 58 68 122 15 108 1.9
50% .252 .343 .402 503 72 127 28 4 13 57 67 124 14 103 1.6
40% .252 .341 .395 504 71 127 28 4 12 56 66 127 13 101 1.4
30% .251 .338 .391 506 71 127 27 4 12 55 64 133 12 99 1.3
20% .246 .329 .377 509 70 125 26 4 11 54 61 138 11 93 0.8
10% .244 .324 .363 512 70 125 25 3 10 53 58 148 9 88 0.5

Even if a change of scenery seems like it may be beneficial for Benintendi, it’s still sad to see the Red Sox jettison their last remaining starting outfielder from the 2018 World Series champs. Franchy Cordero is less expensive than Benintendi and has three years remaining until free agency, a tempting attribute for a team clearly not out of cost-cutting mode. Cordero’s combination of power and speed makes him an interesting gamble. Of the 514 players with at least 300 total plate appearances from 2017 to 2020, Cordero ranks ninth in average exit velocity, sandwiched between Giancarlo Stanton and Matt Chapman. His 29.8 foot/second sprint speed made him one of the fastest in baseball in his rookie season. Of course, the catch is that Cordero has significant contact issues and has missed a lot of development time due to injuries. But if you’re going cheap, Franchy’s not a bad lottery ticket.

ZiPS Projection – Franchy Cordero

Year BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB OPS+ DR WAR
2021 .240 .299 .455 288 43 69 16 5 12 49 24 96 8 96 1 1.1
2022 .236 .298 .449 276 42 65 16 5 11 48 24 93 6 94 1 0.9
2023 .232 .295 .449 263 40 61 16 4 11 46 23 90 6 93 1 0.8

ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Franchy Cordero

Percentile BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB OPS+ WAR
90% .250 .318 .514 284 46 71 19 7 14 55 28 80 13 115 1.8
80% .245 .309 .486 286 45 70 18 6 13 53 26 87 10 106 1.4
70% .240 .303 .470 287 44 69 17 5 13 51 25 90 9 101 1.2
60% .240 .303 .460 287 44 69 17 5 12 50 25 93 9 98 1.1
50% .240 .299 .455 288 43 69 16 5 12 49 24 96 8 96 1.1
40% .236 .296 .441 288 43 68 16 5 11 48 24 100 8 92 0.9
30% .234 .290 .421 290 42 68 16 4 10 47 22 102 7 85 0.6
20% .234 .287 .416 291 42 68 15 4 10 45 21 107 7 83 0.5
10% .229 .280 .394 292 41 67 15 3 9 43 20 115 6 76 0.2

Josh Winckowski’s career with the Mets turned out to be a short one, lasting just two weeks. My colleague Eric Longenhagen originally talked about him in Toronto’s top prospect list (he went to the Mets in the Steven Matz trade), and not much has changed since then. From Tony Wolfe’s piece on the Matz deal:

Winckowski, meanwhile, was relegated to the “Depth Arms” section, having fallen below the 35+ Future Value distinction. He had a good 2019 season, holding a 2.32 ERA and 3.23 FIP in 73.2 innings in Low A, then a 3.19 ERA and 4.20 FIP in 53.2 innings in High A. Per Eric, he throws 97 mph with his fastball, boasting a slider and splitter as his secondary pitches. Like Diaz, Winckowski was developed as a starter throughout his minor league career but could fit better in a single-inning relief role if a third pitch doesn’t stick.

The players to be named later won’t be named until, well, later, but typically, they don’t change the trajectories of these trades. Now, this isn’t always true — Trea Turner and Moises Alou are two notable exceptions — but that’s usually the way to bet. It’s unlikely Benintendi’s trade value was high enough for any additional prospects of significance to be added to the deal, especially with the Red Sox paying part of his salary.

The Mets aren’t exactly overflowing in quality outfield prospects right now and Khalil Lee helps fill that void. It would have been hard to justify playing either Andrew Benintendi or Franchy Cordero over any of the current starters, but the team can play Lee at Triple-A and see how he develops after losing a year in 2020. Eric liked his chances to at least be a large part of a platoon in right field, and statistically, he drew enough walks and stolen enough bases in 2019 to be intriguing. Lee is one of the biggest ZiPS vs. Steamer disagreements; Mets fans, root for Steamer on this one!

ZiPS Projection – Khalil Lee

Year BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB OPS+ DR WAR
2021 .197 .284 .316 488 57 96 19 3 11 47 52 184 35 65 0 -0.8
2022 .197 .288 .328 476 57 94 20 3 12 48 53 184 31 69 -1 -0.5
2023 .199 .293 .335 477 59 95 20 3 13 50 56 186 31 72 -1 -0.3
2024 .197 .294 .334 473 59 93 20 3 13 49 58 187 29 72 -1 -0.3
2025 .192 .291 .331 468 59 90 20 3 13 49 59 189 27 71 -2 -0.4

ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Khalil Lee

Percentile BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB OPS+ WAR
90% .209 .309 .389 478 63 100 24 4 18 58 62 150 53 90 0.9
80% .203 .298 .353 482 61 98 22 4 14 54 58 163 45 78 0.2
70% .200 .291 .336 485 59 97 21 3 13 51 55 171 39 72 -0.2
60% .198 .287 .325 486 58 96 20 3 12 49 54 177 37 68 -0.5
50% .197 .284 .316 488 57 96 19 3 11 47 52 184 35 65 -0.8
40% .194 .280 .307 489 56 95 19 3 10 46 51 193 33 62 -1.0
30% .193 .276 .293 491 56 95 18 2 9 45 49 199 31 57 -1.3
20% .191 .271 .282 493 55 94 17 2 8 44 47 207 28 53 -1.6
10% .188 .265 .271 495 54 93 16 2 7 41 45 220 23 48 -2.0

Even if Steamer is closer than ZiPS, I think the Mets would still be well-served by continuing to look at Lee in center field until he conclusively proves he can’t play there. If he can surprise with the glove, the Mets could use a better caddy in center for Brandon Nimmo than Albert Almora Jr.

In 2021, this trade is probably a wash for the Red Sox and insignificant for the Mets. Meanwhile, how Benintendi does in Kansas City is an interesting storyline. The Royals are sneaking closer to the point at which a lot of coins coming up heads could be enough to make them relevant.

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