Looking at what’s going on in the Twin Cities, White Sox fans might be a little jealous.
With the Twins handing Carlos Correa a $200 million contract to end a bizarre free-agent saga and return one of the best players in baseball to the AL Central, there’s ammunition for those South Side denizens who wonder why they can’t ever have nice things.
Nice, in this case, means expensive.
The White Sox cautioned early this winter that they were unlikely to be swimming in the deep end of the free-agent pool, but that didn’t stop fans from griping when monster deals were handed out left and right. Correa agreed to a trio of deals worth hundreds of millions, but he was just one of the players signed to decade-long deals. Trea Turner, Xander Bogaerts, Dansby Swanson, Justin Verlander, Jacob deGrom and Carlos Rodón all found new employers and got massive paydays in the process.
The White Sox sat out of that bidding – at least they weren’t reported to have been in on any of those big names – but still ended up handing out the richest free-agent deal in their history, bringing in Andrew Benintendi for $75 million.
Many fans were less than enthused, despite the surprise record-setting nature of the pact, hoping for an addition from a higher tier. Plenty won’t be pleased until they see a nine-figure contract, no matter the player.
But while it’s likely that Benintendi’s impact will be less obvious and less grandiose, perhaps, than all those MVP and Cy Young types listed above, that doesn’t mean that he won’t share a similar level of importance to his new club.
The White Sox needed to get better in a lot of different areas following the gargantuan disappointment of 2022, and the team has put much of the responsibility for doing so on first-time manager Pedro Grifol and his new-look coaching staff. It’ll be up to them to solve what went wrong, on a micro and macro level, for so many White Sox hitters last season. While fans were scouring the free-agent lists looking for ways Rick Hahn could bring substantial change to the roster, the front office put the majority of its faith in its existing collection of players to figure it out and become the championship-caliber group it’s long been projected to be.
But Benintendi is a newcomer of significance, perhaps slated to be the team’s new No. 2 hitter and definitely locked in as its new everyday left fielder. That type of role alone will be enough to bring change; his 2022 wRC+ of 122 was higher than that of every White Sox hitter besides Eloy Jiménez and José Abreu, the latter departed to the Astros.
It’s Benintendi’s skill set, though, that might provide the biggest impact. Yes, he only hit five home runs last season, not exactly helping the White Sox restore their disappeared power production, but he does a boatload of other things that this team simply did not do in 2022.
“His profile both offensively and defensively we thought were great complements to what we already had and how we projected to break the season come Opening Day,” Rick Hahn said last week. “A guy who, obviously not just left-handed, but gives you a tough AB, can grind it out, put up solid on-base numbers towards the top of the lineup and … (helps) improve ourselves from an outfield-defense standpoint. He really fit in a lot of different ways that we were looking to improve ourselves.”
“He’s a baseball player,” Grifol told CHGO last week. “He’s going to do the little things to help us win baseball games. He’s a very versatile offensive player. … I’ve seen him hit balls out of the ballpark. I’ve seen him get on base on a regular basis. I’ve seen him advance on balls in the dirt. I’ve seen him bunt. Definitely plays really good defense, he’s a Gold Glover. So he brings a lot to this ballclub. He’s a really good fit for us.”
The White Sox were among the worst in baseball at hitting right-handed pitching last season, with a wRC+ of 93 as a team. Benintendi, a left-handed hitter, posted a wRC+ of 132 against righties.
The White Sox were one of the worst fielding teams in baseball last season, third-to-last in team fielding percentage and errors committed. The advanced stats pegged Benintendi as an average defender a year ago – still quite an improvement, especially compared to sometime left fielder Andrew Vaughn – but he’s got a Gold Glove on his mantle.
The White Sox ranked 18th in reaching base with a .310 on-base percentage, a number fueled mostly by their top-five .256 batting average. They ranked 29th out of 30 with only 388 walks and dead last with a 6.3-percent team walk rate. Benintendi hit over .300 in 2022, but still managed to walk 52 times, more than anyone on the White Sox save Abreu, and had a 10-percent walk rate.
Benintendi has a reputation as a heady base runner, as well. Fans need only to think about blunders such as the triple play against the Twins and Danny Mendick’s gaffe in Toronto to remember how things went in that department for the White Sox last season. The South Siders ranked 24th in baseball with 58 stolen bases; Benintendi has only swiped eight bags each of the last two seasons but has a pair of 20-steal campaigns on his resume.
Now, that’s all good that Benintendi can bring new things to the White Sox. But he’s only one guy. As was obvious when word of his addition arrived, Benintendi strikes more as a finishing piece rather than a one-man game-changer. The White Sox’ fortunes still rest on the existing core, guys like Jiménez, Vaughn, Tim Anderson, Luis Robert, Yoán Moncada and Yasmani Grandal, not to mention the pitching staff.
But can Benintendi’s skill set reach the rest of the team through some sort of osmosis? Maybe in a way.
“I think that’s what he does. He’s a quiet leader. He does lead by example,” Grifol said. “He’s always looking at the small little details of the game to help us win games. And he lengthens out our lineup. We had a good lineup, and now we’ve added Andrew Benintendi. That’s pretty good.
“I think that the way he approaches the game is going to definitely set the tone for how the White Sox are going to play in 2023.”
No one is suggesting Benintendi can step in and single-handedly fill Abreu’s vacated spot as the team’s leader, the guy who shows everyone else how to play and how to act. But maybe he can provide an example to follow and bring a type of play that was sorely missing from last year’s squad.
At the very least, he’s been through the Pedro Grifol Experience before after spending the last two seasons in Kansas City. The White Sox at least have one guy who really understands how Grifol wants his team to play, which at least sounds pretty different from what we saw last year.
“I feel that fundamentally we’ve got to improve,” Grifol said during his introductory press conference in November. “I go back to the intensity level and the energy that we’ve got to bring to our preparation. … Personally, I’m going to be a stickler for the preparation, the energy. It’s going to get us where we want to go. These guys are going to come to play every single night. … I think with a few adjustments on just the mental side of it, and the approach to our practices, and our preparation, it’s going to be sufficient.”
“Obviously I got to know him the last two years in Kansas City, and that definitely played a big role in me coming here, the comfortable relationship with him,” Benintendi said about Grifol, talking with CHGO last week. “I’m aware of how he goes about his daily routine and the work he does and what he expects from you as a player. That was something that I wanted to be a part of.”