Had I told you at the beginning of the offseason that the White Sox would set a new franchise record for the largest free-agent contract in club history, you likely would have assumed that the massive disappointment of 2022 sparked some internal desire for a big change on the South Side.
But in making Andrew Benintendi the new No. 1 on the franchise’s all-time free-agent spending list, the White Sox did quite the opposite, reinforcing their belief that the core group that opened this supposed contention window in the first place is capable of pulling itself out of what many fans see as a tailspin.
Benintendi will reportedly receive $75 million over the course of his five-year deal, so the reports said Friday evening, when news broke that the fan base’s wait for some post-Mike Clevinger winter activity was finally over. That edges out the $73 million in Yasmani Grandal’s deal, signed before the 2020 season.
Grandal’s 2022 campaign, the worst year by far in an otherwise accomplished career, has been Exhibit A for plenty of White Sox fans in the case of free-agent deals gone very, very wrong. (The White Sox, for what it’s worth, have voiced nothing but a belief that he can return to the form shown during an injury-affected but mighty productive 2021 season.) That Benintendi’s deal lasts five years, one more than Grandal’s, is no sign, though, that the White Sox are merely betting on positive production lasting until 2025 and beyond, when the problems of 2022 will be ancient history.
No, Benintendi is an addition for right now, a win-now move on par with the acquisitions of Grandal, Dallas Keuchel, Lance Lynn, Liam Hendriks and Craig Kimbrel. Some of those have obviously worked out far better than others. But all were applauded, in the wake of painful slogs of rebuilding years, for being signs of a team making a championship push. A .500 finish and a playoff-less October last year doesn’t mean the White Sox are up for a retooling, and vocal belief in bounce-back seasons for basically the entire roster, coupled with this high-priced move, show the White Sox expect to compete for the World Series in 2023 and how they expect to do it: on the backs of the same players who just failed last season.
There were those decrying the Benintendi signing in their own rapid reactions, spurred on by the size of the contract more than the quality of the player, perhaps. No one is assuming that Benintendi will be Aaron Judge after posting a .279/.351/.431 slash line over the course of his career. Hell, Judge came within 11 homers of matching Benintendi’s career long-ball total last year alone.
Benintendi, though, is a very good player and an obvious upgrade for a White Sox team that was previously starting absolutely nobody in left field. It’s a hole filled, and the lineup is improved because of it. Just because Benintendi doesn’t meet the team’s need for power-hitting doesn’t mean he brings nothing to the table. The team’s intention to get back to the top of the pile in home runs rests far more on the shoulders of Eloy Jiménez, Luis Robert, Andrew Vaughn and other guys who were already wearing White Sox jerseys.
And that’s why this move screams “win now.” It’s why it screams that the White Sox are uber confident in getting all those bounce-back years. Despite his new status as the South Side’s all-time most expensive outside addition, Benintendi is a complementary piece to the in-place core around him, a player who does something different from what all those hitters are supposed to do, which is hit the ball a mile. Under perfect conditions, Benintendi is the singles-hitting, on-base lefty in a sea of power-hitting righties. It might be difficult to envision everything going perfectly for the White Sox after watching the 2022 season, but it’s clear the White Sox believe it’s possible, if not likely.
If the extensions for Jiménez, Robert and Yoán Moncada were the initial financial investments in this group, Benintendi strikes as the latest, another commitment to a plan long in place and already well underway. “Finishing piece” was a favorite term of Rick Hahn’s in offseasons past. Benintendi seems like one of those, rather than a reactionary detour or an attempt to spend the team’s 2022 troubles away – something plenty of fans would have been on board with.
Pedro Grifol and a new coaching staff have a lot on their plate to return this lineup to what it was supposed to be ahead of 2022. But now they’ve got some certainty added to it in Benintendi, a guy Grifol spent the last two years with in Kansas City, the second of which saw Benintendi make the AL All-Star team. There were plenty pounding the table for Joey Gallo, but Gallo comes with far less certainty and some far more glaring shortcomings. He might hit 30 home runs – for the Twins, his reported new home – but has failed to produce a single-season batting average north of .200 since 2019. He was an All Star and a Gold Glover in 2021 (Benintendi was an AL Gold Glover that year, too) but led the game with more than 210 strikeouts.
Gallo would have been the power infusion that Benintendi isn’t. But the team’s faith in that pop coming from what’s already in place steered their free-agent priorities elsewhere. And so the result is not a savior riding in on a white-socked horse, but instead an addition to a group that already has the team’s trust, even if it lost the fans’ trust during last season’s avalanche of disappointment.
Trust, of course, was a buzzword during the year-end press conferences, those reacting to one manager leaving and another coming aboard. The goal, the White Sox said, was to win their fans’ trust back. Benintendi is going to spark no citywide celebrations the weekend before Christmas.
And so the way the White Sox will win back trust is with their own trust, their trust that their carefully crafted core of Tim Anderson, Jiménez, Dylan Cease, Vaughn, Lucas Giolito, Moncada, Robert, Michael Kopech, Lynn, Grandal, Hendriks – and now Benintendi – can be the group that was long envisioned.
We won’t know how that will play out until Grifol starts managing all these guys in games that actually count. So for now, it’s Benintendi on board right before the holiday.
Welcome to the party, pal.