Jackie Bradley Jr. should be an advocate for patience. The outfielder was 22 years old with only a full year of minor-league experience under his belt – 67 games in High-A and 61 in Double-A – when he made his major-league debut at the start of the 2013 season. Bradley may have been a hot young prospect, but he clearly wasn’t ready. He lasted less than a month before being sent back down and struggled in his subsequent call ups that season, posting a .236 TAv in 107 plate appearances.
The next season was even worse. Bradley was the Red Sox’s starting center fielder for most of 2014. He was a Gold Glove-caliber fielder, but a disaster at the plate, posting a .198 TAv and striking out at a 28.6 percent rate. Bradley needed time, and the Sox gave it to him, as he split the 2015 season between Triple-A and the majors. A year later, Bradley is an All-Star with a .303 TAv and showing us why he was one of the team’s top prospects four years ago.
The Red Sox should remember the lessons that Bradley’s career path offer before calling up Andrew Benintendi.
Benintendi’s situation isn’t much different than Bradley’s was. He’s a 2015 first-round pick who’s using his bat, glove and elite speed to soar through the minor leagues in his first full season in the organization. He needed just 34 games in High-A Salem before getting the call up to Portland, where he owns a .295 TAv in 213 plate appearances. He’s the hot young prospect. He’s considered nearly untouchable as the trade deadline approaches, and the Red Sox’s thin outfield depth has left many wondering if he could reach the majors as early as this season.
The Red Sox can’t afford to let another inexperienced player who may not be ready for the big leagues take his lumps at the big league level.
It’s certainly possible. Brock Holt, Blake Swihart and Chris Young have all battled injuries. Any more setbacks on that front may leave the Red Sox with no other choice. However, it may not be in the team’s best interest. Consider this: Benintendi hit .231 in his first 138 plate appearances in Double-A. It’s only over the past three weeks that those numbers have significantly improved. That’s not an indictment on Benintendi, just the reality of adjusting to the better pitching he’s facing at the next level. The Red Sox, two games back of the Orioles in the division and clinging to a wild card spot, can’t afford to let another inexperienced player who may not be ready for the big leagues take his lumps at the big league level.
Right now, the Red Sox have enough reliable short-term options in left field to get the production they need. Brock Holt is back, and Blake Swihart and Chris Young should both be healthy and contributing before long. Holt (.259 TAv) and Swihart (.253) have been decent, and are fine as bottom-of-the-order hitters in this lineup. Young, meanwhile, looked like the Red Sox’s best offensive left fielder before suffering a hamstring injury last month, posting a .288 TAv and slashing .340/.404/.638 against lefties. Bryce Brentz has emerged as another strong option in left. He filled in for Holt nicely before the All-Star break, and owns a .293 TAv in 45 plate appearances in the majors this season. Brentz at the very least looks like a reliable option off the bench.
None of this is to say Benintendi is doomed to fail if called up this season. Kyle Schwarber was drafted by the Cubs in 2014, and saw just 58 games of Double-A action and 17 games in Triple-A before being called up to the bigs for good last season. He owned a .307 TAv with Chicago in 2015 and played a key role in its postseason run. Schwarber is just one of multiple cases in Benintendi’s favor.
However, there are also plenty of examples that prove Benintendi may not have enough reps in the high minors yet. The Pirates’ Gregory Polanco had a combined 71 games of Triple-A experience before getting the call to Pittsburgh, where he owned a underwhelming .245 TAv the rest of the way. Even 2015 proved to be an adjustment, as he hit .256/.320/.381 for the year before finally turning things around this season.
Brandon Belt spent less than two years in the Giants system before making his big-league debut in 2011. He hit .225 and struck out at a 27.3 percent rate during that 63-game stretch. He finished three of the next four seasons with a TAv over .300 and has been one of San Francisco’s best hitters in 2016.
Benintendi has still only played 51 games in the high minors, and he spent half of those games in an adjustment phase.
Adam Jones made his major-league debut at 20 years old after nearly a full season in Triple-A and struggled mightily. He posted a .193 TAv in 76 plate appearances in 2006 before improving that mark to .280 in 71 plate appearances the next season. It wasn’t until he went to Baltimore the next season that he started to round to form, becoming the All-Star-caliber player he’s been for years.
Even Xander Bogaerts needed time for his bat to come around in the majors. He sported a .247 TAv in his first full season in 2014 before transforming into an All-Star this season.
This is the type of risk the Red Sox would be taking by calling up Benintendi too soon. It’s not a matter of stunting his growth or hurting his confidence, it’s the fact that he’s not ready to make an immediate contribution in the majors yet. The 22-year-old has still only played 51 games in the high minors, and he spent half of those games in an adjustment phase. The jump from Double-A to the majors isn’t uncommon, but it doesn’t guarantee immediate success. Benintendi would need time, and that’s something the Red Sox don’t have much of in the midst of a playoff race.
Right now, the safest bet is to let Benintendi develop in the minors. Holt, Swihart and Young, when healthy, have done enough to contribute to the highest-scoring offense in the majors, while Brentz has shown he can hit as well. No need to turn to the hot young prospect before he’s ready just yet.
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