FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Alex Verdugo may have been traded for Mookie Betts, and he may end up manning right field instead of Mookie Betts, but he's not replacing Mookie Betts.
That job belongs to someone else, because if there's anyone on the roster who needs to pick up the slack for the departed MVP, it's left fielder Andrew Benintendi.
Baseball people like to remind us that player development is not a linear process, and no one embodies this idea more than Benintendi. He arrived to considerable fanfare in 2016, barely a year after being selected seventh overall, and made an immediate impact, posting an .835 OPS and making an out of this world catch in Tampa Bay to preserve a shutout for David Price.
He finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting a year later and smashed a career-high 20 homers, but posted a middling .776 OPS and battled inconsistency. Then came a borderline All-Star first half in 2018, followed by a mysterious loss of power that dragged straight through 2019, when he lost his ability to command the strike zone.
As 2020 dawns, Benintendi owns a new two-year, $10 million contract, as well as the expectation that, at age 25, he's ready to shoulder more of the load.
"Just being more consistent," he said. "I think after last season, just trying to work on some stuff this offseason with my swing and trying to be more consistent and I think the biggest thing is just staying in the zone, swinging at good pitches."
Benintendi posted career lows in average (.266) and on base percentage (.343) while blowing away his career high in strikeouts with 140. He never looked comfortable at the plate, flinching at pitches down the middle and flailing at ones outside the zone. He hit just .167 on off-speed offerings.
"I just think I went outside the zone way too much," Benintendi said. "I was trying to make something happen and I should have just let the game come to me. Hopefully, I'll learn from it coming into this year."
When Benintendi is right, he has line drive power to all fields and an advanced eye. One of Betts' underrated strengths was his ability to attack pitches in the zone with uncanny consistency, and Benintendi possesses a measure of that, too, though the skill largely abandoned him last year.
He raced to the big leagues on the strength of some lofty projections that saw him as a potential batting champ with 25-homer power. If he makes that leap this season, he won't exactly replace Betts, but he'll mitigate his loss.
That might mean batting leadoff, where Benintendi hit just .256 with 55 strikeouts in 48 games last year. Betts ended up returning to that spot out of necessity when Benintendi failed to hit there, but now that Mookie is gone, manager Ron Roenicke noted that Benintendi will be given a chance to stick atop the order.
"If Benny had been what he was the year before and has a .380 on-base percentage, I think that works out really well to have Mookie second," Roenicke said. "I think Benny learned something last year. I think he's capable of doing whatever we want to do with him. He is an on-base guy and he's also a hitter. He's not up there just swinging at everything. He takes pitches, he goes the other way, he's really just a pure hitter, so I'm fine with him. If he ends up there, I'm fine with him leading off. We'll have those discussions with him later when we start playing games and try to figure out how everybody fits in."
Benintendi is open to the challenge.
"No, it's just like any other spot in the lineup," he said. "You just have to hit first in the first inning. Other than that, it's the same. I don't mind it at all. If I need to do it, I'll do it. I think last year, I was going through a little slump when I was in the leadoff spot, so obviously there's a lot of things being said about me hitting leadoff but, no, wherever I need to be, I'll be."
In a perfect world, the Red Sox need him to be the man who covers the most for the loss of Betts.