Arkansas baseball has produced its fair share of legitimate stars in Major League Baseball over the years.
In terms of recent history, a pair of left-handers come to mind with the still active Dallas Keuchel (Arizona Diamondbacks) and Cliff Lee who retired in 2015. Both won the prestigious Cy Young Award (Lee in 2008, Keuchel in 2015) with a handful of All Star team selections between them.
Current New York Mets catcher James McCann also has a recent All-Star Game appointment on his resume from 2019 when he was with the White Sox.
With the news last week that former Razorback star Andrew Benintendi (Kansas City Royals) was selected for the 2022 All Star Game, a total of seven former Razorbacks have played in what is affectionately called the “Midsummer Classic”. Benintendi joins McCann, Keuchel and Lee, plus Tom Pagnozzi, Johnny Ray and Randy Jackson as former Arkansas players earning the prestigious honor of being an MLB All-Star.
Andrew Benintendi’s All-Star Season
Benintendi appropriately saved his best season in the big leagues for his free agency year. His name will be a hot commodity over the next few weeks as the Aug. 2 trade deadline approaches. A premier defender (he’s the only left fielder in 2022 MLB with over 100 chances and zero errors and won his first Gold Glove in 2021), Benintendi has retooled his swing, aiming for fewer home runs and more base hits. That has led to production that ranks amongst the tops of the American League.
After spending the early parts of career trying to match his power production in college, Benintendi has recalibrated to remove the lift out of his swing and his output has skyrocketed. Through Wednesday’s games, he is third in the league in batting average (.317) and sixth in on-base percentage (.386).
His previous career bests are .290 and .366, respectively, in 2018 with the Boston Red Sox. His power numbers are down, as he’s hit only three home runs. That is well off pace for the 20 homers he hit in 2017 and the 17 he hit last year while playing half of his games in the pitcher-friendly Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City.
Changing His Approach with KC Royals
Arkansas baseball fans will remember “Benny Baseball” for his home run hitting prowess, as he launched 20 long balls in his fantastic Golden Spikes Award season in 2015. Between switching to wood bats and facing the top pitchers in the world, though, that power doesn’t always translate to The Show.
Kudos to the 28-year-old Benintendi for making an adjustment as he enters the prime of his career. He won’t be one of the myriad of hard-headed sluggers sticking with swinging for the fences while their productivity wanes and their careers fade.
Benintendi’s adjustments and improved results will likely make him a very, very wealthy man in the near future. Not that he’s currently hurting for cash. He’s set to make $8.5 million this year with the conservative Royals after winning his arbitration case earlier this year. Kansas City had offered $7.3M and interestingly, this was the first and only arbitration case Royals General Manager Dayton Moore has lost since taking office in 2006. Moore is the father of current Arkansas second baseman Robert Moore, who is looking to make his own way through the 2022 MLB Draft next week.
Shopping Benintendi Ahead of MLB’s Trade Deadline
The Royals are likely to get a huge haul of prospects in return for Andrew Benintendi because of his high demand on the trading block.
The Mets and Padres have expressed early interest as they look to pick up key pieces on a run to the playoffs. The Yankees were seriously in the mix until it was revealed that Benintendi was among the 10 Royals that are not COVID-19 vaccinated, barring him from entering Canada to play the Blue Jays. The Yankees had a fully vaccinated roster when they went to Toronto in early May and mid-June, and have one more trip to Canada remaining with a three-game series against the Blue Jays on Sept. 26-28, according to the New York Post.
The Royals could try to lock Benintendi into a long-term contract, but this season’s success will cost them and the Royals traditionally shy away from those kinds of deals unless the roster is ready to compete for a playoff spot. The 2022 Royals are in last place in the AL Central and only the Oakland A’s are worse in the entire American League.
Although they do have some solid young players, like Bobby Witt, Jr., the Royals’ farm system rankings are *blah* – coming in at No. 22 out of 30, according to the Bleacher Report. Trading Benintendi and injecting some rising young talent into the farm system is likely the route Kansas City takes because it doesn’t appear ready to contend anytime soon.
Benintendi Revives His Career
This season also alleviates heavy concerns that Andrew Benintendi was going to flame out after being the No. 7 overall pick by the Red Sox in the 2015 MLB Draft and putting together two strong seasons to start his big league career.
Benintendi didn’t spend much time in the minors, as he was called up to the bigs in August of 2016. He was runner-up for AL Rookie of the Year in 2017 and his strong 2018 season nearly landed him on the All-Star team, but in a tie-breaking fan vote, the Mariners’ Jean Segura (a former Arkansas Traveler) won the spot.
His last two seasons in Boston saw his production tumble while he battled injuries and his aforementioned attempt to be something he isn’t with the power swing. His 2020 season was cut short when a rib cage strain put him on the 45-day injured list, effectively ending his time in Boston despite signing a two-year, $10 million deal. With a fear his value may be dropping, the Red Sox offered him up as trade bait.
A three-way trade with the Red Sox, Royals and New York Mets eventually landed Andrew Bentintendi in Kansas City. He responded with a very solid 2021 season that included a Gold Glove and .276 average with 17 home runs. The continued climb this season will inevitably lead to the big pay day with his trajectory back on the right path.
Looking to the Future
Where he lands next will be interesting, as his ability to be a free agent at the end of the season could land him somewhere for the remainder of this season, but elsewhere for 2023 and beyond. Benintendi doesn’t have an outrageous salary to contend with, so he could draw the interest of big market teams or the smaller market, lower payroll teams. Couple that with being a Gold Glove caliber fielder – he is on pace to win another this year – and he will command a heavy amount of interest.
Benintendi is represented by Excel Sports Management, whose clientele includes eight other 2022 All-Stars (Clayton Kershaw, Paul Goldschimdt, Dansby Swanson, Joc Pederson, Kyle Tucker, Kyle Schwarber and George Springer), as well as the iconic Tiger Woods.
With all the first-round busts in professional sports, Benintendi is a refreshing story of a guy that has actually panned out even after battling injuries early in his MLB career. He has also won a World Series already with the 2018 Red Sox and he’s destined to end up on a playoff contender before the 2022 season ends. He could possibly land with an upper tier team for the long haul, as well. His consistency and productivity should only increase with better players and hitters surrounding him in the lineup.
Other Razorbacks in the Big Leagues
Beyond Andrew Benintendi, there are several former Razorbacks currently trying to make their mark in the big leagues.
There are a handful of pitchers doing very well, with Ryne Stanek (Astros), Jalen Beeks (Rays), Drew Smyly (Cubs), Zach Jackson (A’s) and Trevor Stephan (Guardians) all playing key roles for their respective clubs.
As far as position players go, McCann with the Mets is a backup catcher currently on the 10-day injured list and veteran Brian Anderson continues to be a solid big leaguer with the Marlins. Despite being good, solid major league ballplayers, it’s not likely that either of them make an All-Star roster on the backsides of their careers.
With Heston Kjerstad finally healthy and rising fast within the Orioles’ farm system and Dominic Fletcher having a great season with the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Triple-A team, the safe money is on one of them to reach the big leagues in the next couple of seasons.
Kjerstad’s unfortunate start to his career required some serious perseverance and who wouldn’t want to see him produce at the big league level that justifies his selection as the No. 2 overall pick in 2020.
Fletcher was an incredibly good center fielder for the Razorbacks who has continued to improve since leaving Fayetteville. He’s still making SportsCenter Top 10 plays and producing well offensively at every rung on the minor league ladder. He’s got “big leaguer” written all over him, but only time will tell whether he’s All-Star material.
What it Means for Arkansas Baseball
The Arkansas baseball program benefits from the success of Andrew Benintendi.
On the recruiting trail, head coach Dave Van Horn can tout his 31st-round selection out of high school to seventh overall pick after two seasons at Arkansas and then point to his major league accomplishments, including this All-Star selection.
Coupled with the success of some other Van Horn-era players, the regular trips to Omaha, the facilities and the fan support, it’s no wonder the Razorbacks have top-five recruiting classes lined up in the near future. The stream of talent headed to Fayetteville should keep the program consistently near the top of college baseball.
Let’s just hope that if there is another Benintendi-type player in one of those classes, the Razorbacks can once again get him on campus.
More coverage of Arkansas baseball from BoAS…