Entering the 2022 season, outfield depth seemed like the true strength of the Orioles organization. Cedric Mullins was coming off of a Silver Slugger-winning 2021 season. Austin Hays was coming off of a September where he slashed .285/.352/.569 with 8 HRs and 22 RBIs. Anthony Santander was, well, Anthony Santander—a dependable switch-hitter with pop. And all of that was before you even got to talking about the depth in the minors.
While that depth in the minors has only continued to grow over the last year, confidence in the Orioles’ starting OF trio has somewhat waned. Mullins—somewhat predictably—regressed in 2022. Hays struggled once again with injuries, and the semi-regular web gem couldn’t cover up his largely mediocre play from the middle of June onward. While Santander enjoyed the best offensive season of his career, it also became increasingly clear that he’s a defensive liability in the outfield.
That’s why someone like Andrew Benintendi has suddenly become an intriguing proposition for the Orioles’ front office this offseason. The former first-round pick of the Red Sox enters the free agent market coming off an All-Star-worthy first half with the Royals followed by an injury-plagued second half of 2022 in the Bronx.
The things Benintendi does well are attributes that fit well with the Orioles’ offensive needs Simply put, the former Red Sox is an on-base machine. Benintendi finished the 2022 season ranking in the 70th percentile for Expected Weighted On-base Average while finishing in the 86th percentile for Expected Batting Average. He also ranked in the upper echelon when it comes to drawing walks and was elite at avoiding strikeouts and only attacking pitches in the zone.
For an Orioles team that ranked in the bottom half of the league at getting runners on base, Benintendi offers immediate relief to their OBP woes. Having excellent run producers like Adley Rutschman and Santander in the lineup is great and all, but having someone on base to drive in is an essential part of that equation. It’s easy to imagine slotting Benintendi into the O’s lineup and watching him blossom into one of MLB’s leading run scorers.
There’s also a good argument that the Orioles would be an attractive option for the left-handed hitting 28-year-old. While the Great Wall of Baltimore has made Camden Yards a formidable foe to right-handed hitters, it’s still a great hitting environment for lefties. This bears out in Benintendi’s expected home runs by park numbers. His career number of 75 HRs would jump up to 100 had he been playing all of his games in Camden Yards. Also, with Benintendi’s ability to spray the ball to all fields, it’s easy to imagine him racking up extra-base hits in the Yards’ power alleys.
The downside to Benintendi is that, outside of his ability to get on base, there’s nothing about him that jumps off the page. As Fangraphs’ Ben Clemens put it in his Top 50 Free Agents list, “He has a line drive-oriented swing that won’t produce much power… [and] if his OBP ticks down, there aren’t many tools to replace it.” Believers in Benintendi will point to his Gold Glove from 2021 as a sign that he offers plus defense along with his excellent on-base skills. However, while he did put up strong Outs Above Average numbers in 2022, he was actually below average in that department in 2021. Combine those numbers with his average speed and arm strength, and he profiles as an average corner outfielder who’d offer only a slight improvement over Santander defensively.
There is also the question is how natural a fit Benintendi would be given how the Orioles lineup is currently constructed. Given the strengths of his skill set, Benintendi profiles best as a leadoff or #2 hitter. The problem is that those spots are currently occupied by Mullins and Rutschman—the two greatest stalwarts in the current Orioles lineup. So Benintendi presents the conundrum of whether it makes sense to pay him the likely $15-20 million per year he’ll command, only to then bat him in a suboptimal lineup spot.
The final hurdle to navigate is how signing Benintendi would affect the timeline for that aforementioned OF talent in the minors. Colton Cowser is seemingly on track for a late 2023 debut. Heston Kjerstad was just named MVP of the Arizona Fall League and seems to be back on track to justifying his status as the former No. 2 overall pick, meaning a 2024 debut does not seem out of the question. Both Cowser and Kjerstad project as similar players to Benintendi—offense-first, left-handed hitting corner outfielders—but with more power and much higher upsides. So with both potentially making it to the bigs leagues in the next two years, and with Kyle Stowers already on the big league roster, it’s worth questioning whether Benintendi would become unnecessary halfway through his projected four-year contract.
There’s no doubt that Benintendi would be a useful player for the Orioles in 2023. His prowess when it comes to getting on base would provide a boost to the previously inconsistent O’s offense, while also allowing Santander to transition to a more natural role at DH. If Baltimore were “one piece away” from competing for a pennant, Benintendi could well be that piece. Instead, the O’s are just barely starting to crack open their contention window. Therefore, Benintendi may be a player who doesn’t offer enough upside for the Orioles to consider signing him and risk blocking opportunities for their up-and-coming stars.