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How a lack of health derailed Andrew Benintendi’s first year with White Sox

Vinnie Duber Avatar
October 3, 2023

Andrew Benintendi did not deliver what anyone wanted him to in the first season of his five-year contract that stands as the richest free-agent deal in White Sox history.

He did manage to set the high-water mark in on-base percentage, at .326 (the second lowest of his career), for an offense that ranked dead last in baseball in the category.

But if you throw out the COVID-shortened 2020 season in which he only played 14 games for the Red Sox, this was the worst season of his career. He finished with a wRC+ of 87, making him a below-average big leaguer, something he’d never been before, with his previous career low in that category, the 100 number he put up in 2019, which made him exactly league average.

Turns out, though, while White Sox fans were tearing their hair out wondering what the previous front-office regime could have seen in a guy who ended up producing at such a disappointing level, Benintendi was just plain injured. He appeared in 151 games, second most on the team to Andrew Vaughn’s 152. But he was far from healthy, never getting over the hand injury he suffered at the end of the 2022 campaign.

It was so bad that Pedro Grifol was making game-time decisions on whether or not Benintendi would be in the White Sox’ starting lineup on a fairly regular basis.

“This was a tough year for him,” Grifol said last weekend in an interview with CHGO. “I can’t tell you how many times it was a 2 o’clock, 3 o’clock decision whether he could play or not. It happened a lot. I send that lineup out the night before, and it would be like, ‘I don’t know if he can play. I’m going to send it out with him on it. And if he can’t, he can’t, and if he can, he’ll stay on it. I’ve got to send something out. I don’t want to not put him on there and then have to take somebody out and add him.’

“I can’t tell you how many times that happened because of his hand. He was hobbling to the All-Star break.”

And so a guy who was supposed to deliver consistency, reliability and a ton of different ways he could contribute offensively was reduced to a shell of himself.

Benintendi isn’t likely to find much sympathy from frustrated fans, who have sat through years of key players being limited or just plain unable to take the field because of significant injuries. Eloy Jiménez, Luis Robert Jr., Tim Anderson, Yoán Moncada and Michael Kopech have all experienced lengthy absences in their short major league careers. Even veterans with track records of better durability, like Yasmani Grandal and Lance Lynn, found themselves on long IL stints during a time when the White Sox needed them to help push for a championship.

And it’s because of all those injuries that a championship push was never made during the final years of Rick Hahn’s tenure as general manager.

Hahn added Benintendi, who he long had his eye on and who Grifol gushed over from their time in Kansas City, in the offseason in an effort to stem the effects of those persistent injuries. Even if durability issues popped up again for the likes of Jiménez, Anderson and Moncada — and they did — at least Benintendi would be a reliable presence.

But apart from taking the field, he wasn’t, not as he failed to recover the way he thought he would from that offseason surgery on his hand.

It turned Benintendi into someone who couldn’t provide what he wanted to, and not just in the power department, where he was only able to match the five home runs he hit last season playing home games in cavernous Kauffman Stadium, even with the switch to more hitter-friendly Guaranteed Rate Field. He didn’t hit well, either, with his .262 batting average the lowest in a 162-game season in his career.

Still, part of Grifol’s rave review for Benintendi when the White Sox signed him last winter was that he could be a model for his teammates, an example of someone who played the game the way Grifol and his coaching staff wanted. Benintendi might not have had as many opportunities as expected to show all he could do in that regard, but he did set one example that Grifol remains pleased with.

“Knowing what I know, he’s had a good year,” Grifol said. “He hasn’t complained about it one time, hasn’t talked about it one time. He’s just, ‘If I’m playing, I’m playing. And I’ll play with pain, no problem. I’m playing.’ Even when he wasn’t playing, it was, ‘Hey, if you need me, I’m in there. If you need me, I can play defense.’ A few times, it was, ‘I can play defense and I can run, but I can’t hit.’

“He’s a tough kid, he’s a really tough kid.”

But if that was the case, White Sox fans might wonder, why was Benintendi playing at all?

How the White Sox use the injured list has at times confounded fans in recent years as the injuries have come at an unending pace. Basically, it comes down to this: Even though Benintendi was hurt and unable to do what he normally would, he was still playing at a level that made the lesser version of him better than the alternative.

That hasn’t been a satisfactory answer to many — while also being an indictment of the type of alternatives the White Sox have had at their disposal — but it seems to be the reality.

“You’ve got to weigh in, ‘Does it help us right now, too?’ That production that he’s been giving us has helped us,” Grifol said. “He’s got (34) doubles. He’s still running a (.326) on-base (percentage). He still runs the bases extremely well. You can count on him in left field. He still produces at that level enough to be in the lineup every day.

“When players want to play and they say they can get through it? Let them go. Especially guys like him that have been through it before and played through some stuff before.”

Grifol’s late-season comments focused plenty on the White Sox’ need to prove whatever it is they believe about how good they can be on the field, with wins, rather than continuing to talk about it. And that will apply to Benintendi, too, who in Year 1 gave White Sox fans little reason to believe that his big free-agent deal will be worth it and little reason to believe that he can be the type of player Hahn thought he was signing.

But Benintendi is intent on proving it, for what it’s worth, and has long been focused on having the kind of offseason that will allow him to be that player, one with more power and more strength and greater ability to do the things that made him an All Star in the past.

“It’s been a frustrating year overall,” Benintendi told CHGO way back in mid August. “I never really got it going. I’m really looking forward to getting to the offseason and just getting bigger and stronger. Now that I’ll have a full offseason of getting my hand back from the surgery I had last year, it can only benefit me, getting three months of work in, whereas last offseason there was only so much I could do coming off of surgery. Looking forward to that.

“I think what it needs is an offseason with lifting and getting stronger. … (It’s about) just being more than just a slap hitter or a singles guy. There’s obviously more in the tank for me. It’s easy to talk about it. Just got to do it.”

Grifol saw that All-Star level player with the Royals and is confident he’ll see him again on the South Side.

“We’re going to see him next year at his best,” Grifol said. “He had that hand injury where he was rehabbing all offseason, couldn’t get in the gym to do what he normally does. He’s talking about that already, that a big part of this offseason is getting that strength back that he normally comes into spring training with.

“That’s a big part of his game. The bat-to-ball skills are elite, controls the strike zone. It’s all a matter of now building himself back and having the strength that he’s had in years past, where he comes in and he drives balls because he was able to get after it in the offseason.

“We haven’t even come close to seeing the best of Benintendi here, not even close. But we’ll see it.”

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