Drafted in 2015, Andrew Benintendi appeared on the fast track to stardom when he homered in his first playoff game a year later.
The future felt limitless for the curly-locked heartthrob. All-Star Games. Batting titles. Endorsement deals. A nine-figure contract. Six teams would rue the day they allowed Benintendi to go seventh overall.
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Five years later, Benintendi has reached the proverbial crossroads.
The 26-year-old has not, in fact, blossomed into a star, but settled into a role as just a guy. His OPS-plus last year of 100 signified an exactly average player, a terrible indictment of someone with so much natural talent.
As the 2020 season dawns, however, Benintendi is opening eyes, hitting the ball as hard as anyone in intrasquad games and suggesting that maybe this is the (partial) year he puts it all together.
"It's nice," said manager Ron Roenicke. "You hope you can maintain this through to the end and carry it right into the season. Sometimes you don't want to peak too early, but I'd certainly rather have a guy swinging the bat."
The talent is undeniably there for the sweet-swinging left-handed hitter, who began a mystifying drop in production at the 2018 All-Star break that has continued unabated, particularly in the power department.
Benintendi entered the 2018 break with 14 homers in 91 games. He has managed just 15 bombs in 195 games since, a total that becomes more perplexing in the context of an era that has made 30-homer mashers out of no-names like Rougned Odor, Paul DeJong, and Renato Nuñez.
"The game is not easy and anything can happen," Benintendi said. "From last year, I think, I've just got to learn to bounce back. It's a new year. What's in the past is in the past and I'm just looking forward."
The Red Sox are counting on Benintendi to deliver from a spot where he struggled last year — leadoff. With Mookie Betts gone, Benintendi becomes the incumbent leadoff hitter. Last year, he helped torpedo the entire offensive plan by hitting just .256 in 48 games leading off, necessitating the return of Betts and opening a hole at the No. 2 spot until Rafael Devers exploded onto the scene.
"For me, I've always said that it doesn't really matter once you get that first at-bat out of the way, but I guess what I can learn from it is just getting into the dugout quicker so I can get my stuff on and get out there on deck and watch the pitcher," Benintendi said. "I have kind of a routine when I'm on deck I go through watching pitches and things like that. I think obviously this time around it'll go a lot better than it was in the past and that's what I'm hoping for."
Benintendi did at least post the highest on base percentage of his four principal spots in the batting order hitting first (.355), which means he recognizes his primary responsibility. He also knows that pitchers attack hitters differently in today's game.
"Yeah, I mean the typical leadoff hitter just from what I've learned growing up is just see pitches, work the pitch count," he said. "But now pitchers are so good and they throw so hard and everything, so for me, I'm just going up there and attacking like it's my second or third at-bat. If that first one is there, I'm going to attack it. If it's not where I'm looking, I'll let it go, so I just try to keep it as simple as possible and make it like every other at-bat."
The next two years are crucial for Benintendi, who signed a modest two-year, $10 million extension that buys out all but his final year of arbitration eligibility. There's still time for him to realize the potential that made him look like a surefire star only a few short years ago, but that future needs to start now.
"We know what Benintendi is capable of doing," hitting coach Tim Hyers said earlier in the offseason. "If he places up to that ability, he's really going to benefit the team because he's an on base machine and when he gets on base, good things happen."