This past weekend saw the release of MLB.com’s Top 100 prospects, including a show on MLB Network highlighting the Top 50. Andrew Benintendi was named their #1 overall prospect, a fact that’s sure raise his price some in the draft market, especially after Keith Law ranked him the same last week. Back in December, our own Trey Baughn gave him the top spot in his fantasy prospects list and CBS slotted him 2nd in a similar list focusing on fantasy impact.
I’m a little torn on Benintendi for 2017. On the one hand, he’s an advanced college bat who blitzed through the minors in 151 games and acquitted himself very well in a 34-game sample at the majors. On the other, he’s going into his age-22 season with a whopping 118 PA under his belt and that first six-month grind has a way of punching players in the face at some – or multiple points – throughout the season. But then back on the first hand, we know from Jeff Zimmerman that aging curves are moving up so maybe Benintendi is ready to be an impact bat already.
All that said, I’m not necessarily here to determine how good Benintendi will be, but rather review recent #1 prospect performance in the year they were anointed as such. I’m looking at the last 10 years, and while I did cite MLB.com’s list out front, I’m actually looking Baseball America’s #1s because MLB’s archive uses the dynamic in-season lists making it tough to get a read on the actual #1s at the beginning of each season. It just so happens that all 10 #1s have been hitters so that works out well.
2008: Jay Bruce – 452 PA, .254 AVG, 63 R, 21 HR, 52 RBI, 4 SB
I forgot that Bruce was even a #1 prospect to be honest. He never struggled as a minor leaguer and in fact got better every year. He was drafted #12 overall in 2005 and posted an .825 OPS in 54 games that year. He then had full seasons of .871 and .962 culminating with a 1.023 in 49 games before his call-up in 2008.
He didn’t debut until late-May and a fast start (1.293 OPS in first 56 PA) generated some excitement until a cold snap left him with a .728 OPS through 53 games. He had an .806 OPS and 14 HR in his final 55 games to salvage the season. The biggest issue was his inability hit lefties (.562 OPS in 152 PA), something that has hampered more often than not during his career.
2009: Matt Wieters – 385 PA, .288 AVG, 35 R, 9 HR, 43 RBI, 0 SB
If you weren’t into prospects around the time of Wieters ascending through the minors, then you missed the greatness that was Matt Wieters Facts. It was like Chuck Norris Facts, but for baseball. “The Most Interesting Man in the World” ad campaign for Dos Equis came out around this time, too. It was all the rage. Unfortunately, Wieters’ tears haven’t cured cancer and he’s never been able to live up the hype of his 1.010 minor league OPS.
Like Bruce, he didn’t debut until late-May, but didn’t take off immediately. In fact, his 95 wRC+ was very underwhelming against the massive expectations, slotting just 12th among catchers (min. 350 PA). Using his raw homer total doesn’t tell us much given the playing time disparities, but his .124 ISO was 18th.
All that said, it’s tough to glean much from this season and apply it to someone like Benintendi because catching is just unlike anything else in the game. While Wieters has never shown the bat of his prospect days, he’s been a strong presence behind the dish, particularly with his arm.
2010: Jason Heyward – 623 PA, .277 AVG, 83 R, 18 HR, 72 RBI, 11 SB
Heyward might be the best analog for what we can expect out of Benintendi. I’m not exactly comparing their styles, but Heyward’s line most closely resembles Benintendi’s projection of the guys in this list. You see Heyward’s numbers above and compare that to the .283-64 R-10 HR-60 RBI-13 SB projection from Steamer in 516 PA. Extrapolate to Heyward’s 623 PA and you’re essentially trading some homers for AVG and SB from Benintendi.
I think if you want to be realistic about it, this is about the high watermark that you should project for Benintendi. Sure, he can exceed it, but if you project him to do so or draft him at a level that requires him to do so, you’re likely to wind up disappointed. Unfortunately for Heyward, he hasn’t been able to recapture the heights of that debut season with his 134 wRC+ remaining a career-high through eight seasons. He’s aiming to rebound from his career-worst season when 2017 kicks off.
2011: Bryce Harper – DNP in the majors
2012: Bryce Harper – 597 PA, .270 AVG, 98 R, 22 HR, 59 RBI, 18 SB, Rookie of the Year
Harper went back-to-back, but was worth the wait with an award-winning campaign in 2012. Even as the #1 prospect in 2011, he wasn’t pushed up too high in fantasy drafts as he was an 18-year old who had all of nine games in the Arizona Fall League under his belt as a pro. I wish I could remember exactly where he was going in 2012 drafts, though.
I don’t have any ADP data handy and my memory may be a bit dodgy, but I seem to remember him going in the early double-digit rounds with regularity. This was after a strong A-ball/Double-A campaign plus a very productive repeat of the AFL, but if I recall correctly, we had a firm idea that he’d start in Triple-A so anyone buying in was still getting a dead roster spot for some amount of time in April which helped keep the price down.
All #1s are not created equally and Harper stands alone in this generation. Mike Trout was never a #1 prospect, he went #2 and then #3 in ’11 and ’12, so Harper is really the high water mark for not only hype, but also panning out on it thus far. Sure, last year was a disappointment after the MVP season, but we’re still dealing with a guy holding the 5th-best OPS+ through his age-23 season in the integration era. Benintendi is not on this level.
2013: Jurickson Profar – 324 PA, .234 AVG, 30 R, 6 HR, 26 RBI, 2 SB
Profar had a meaningless 17 PA sample in September call up, making the jump from Double-A. That said, a year later at age-20, he split his season between Triple-A and the majors with his MLB time being just as bad as the cup of coffee the year before. Even though we’re four full years removed from his debut, he’s still something of an Incomplete on the grading scale because he missed all of ’14 and ’15 with injuries. He’s further proof that there’s just no such thing as a can’t-miss prospect.
2014: Byron Buxton – DNP in the majors
Buxton was a two-time #1 at MLB.com and Baseball Prospectus, but he’s gone 1-2-2 the last three seasons at BA. He debuted in ’15 with a .576 OPS in 138 PA and then put up a .561 in 218 PA before a huge September last season. It was only 113 PA, but he looked different after some changes at Triple-A. He had a 1.011 OPS with nine homers leaving on a Costanzian high note that will increase his price at the draft table this year. Benintendi is a much more refined hitter than Buxton so I’d be surprised he struggled to Buxton’s level (.672 OPS in 469 PA).
2015: Kris Bryant – 650 PA, .275 AVG, 87 R, 26 HR, 99 RBI, 13 SB, Rookie of the Year
Bryant was on the fast track from day 1. Drafted out of college as the 2nd pick in 2013, he promptly cut up the lower levels for 36 games (1.078 OPS in 146 PA) and then ravaged the AFL for another 20 (1.184 in 92). In 2014, he treated Double- and Triple-A like batting practice with a 1.098 OPS and 43 HR in 594 PA. The Cubs still send him to Triple-A to start 2015, likely to manipulate his service time, and so he just embarrassed pitchers for another 33 PA (1.042 OPS) before finally debuting.
It took him 21 games to hit his first MLB homer, but he clubbed 26 in his final 131 games en route to the Rookie of the Year award. Bryant started the 2015 draft season deep in the teens rounds before surging into a top-100 pick. Benintendi is already starting higher (9th-10th round on average), but could have a similar surge despite not carrying quite the same overall upside Bryant had prior to his rookie campaign. Benintendi needs a 40-to-50 pick surge to land around Bryant’s 2015 ADP and I think it’s very plausible if he rakes in the Grapefruit League.
2016: Corey Seager – 687 PA, .308 AVG, 105 R, 26 HR, 72 RBI, 3 SB, Rookie the Year
Seager has the strong September call up in common with Benintendi. In fact, his was even strong (.986 OPS in 113 PA) which had his price soaring by draft season 2016. He was a consistent top 75 pick meaning he had to perform to payoff. He turned in a Rookie of the Year effort that included a sneaky 105 runs in addition to the strong power and average output.
I don’t think Benintendi will surge that high even with a big spring, but he could eclipse the dollar value Seager yielded last year if he reaches his high-end projection because it includes double-digit speed to counter the big power Seager showed. We also can’t sleep on Benintendi’s own power. He grades out above average and could hit 18-22 HR in that perfect world scenario. While neither Bryant nor Seager is all that comparable to Benintendi in terms of player type, they do showcase the big upside of a #1 prospects in their first year and like them, Benintendi could definitely reel in a Rookie of the Year award.
Make no mistake, I wasn’t trying to find a Beni clone by looking over these previous #1s. Rather, I was trying to show the volatility associated even with those prospects we deem to be the very best. We do have back-to-back ROY winners, but Buxton and Profar were unmitigated fantasy disasters the two years before that.
The last thing I did for this was look at players 23 and younger (Benintendi was 21 last year, but I wanted to thicken the sample a bit) over the last 10 years who had a 90-130 PA taste before their qualified rookie season. Seager is actually the best of that bunch with a 174 OPS+. Benintendi was one of eight players with at least a 100 OPS+ in this given group of 35 hitters.
Jorge Soler (146) was next best, but we’re still waiting on him to really click. Jacoby Ellsbury (131) only had a .729 OPS in his true rookie season after the big call up, but it was a fantastic fantasy season with a .280 AVG, 98 R, 9 HR, 47 RBI, and 50 SB. Other luminaries include Rob Brantly (123), Dayan Viciedo (122), Adam Eaton (114), and Albert Almora (102). This just in: small sample success in a cup of coffee is not predictive for your rookie season the following year.
Like I said earlier, this exercise wasn’t meant to find a perfect analog for Benintendi, but just a look back at recent #1 prospects to show the range of potential outcomes. He is an advanced hitter who has looked the part every step of the way in his brief pro career, but the first start-to-finish slog has a way of wearing on everyone.
I think Benintendi’s price only goes up from here. I think he pairs both a high floor with legitimate upside so I can certainly pay a higher price than his 136 ADP right now, but if he’s a top 75 pick by late-March, I’m probably looking elsewhere.