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Royals show their aggressive side, trade for Benintendi

The Kansas City Royals, Boston Red Sox, and New York Mets have agreed to a trade that most notably winds up with Andrew Benintendi on the Royals for the next two years.

To acquire Benintendi, the Royals have given up OF Franchy Cordero, OF Khalil Lee, and have left themselves on the hook for two players to be named later that will eventually be Red Sox. The Mets have given up Josh Winckowski and one PTBNL to the Red Sox in return for Khalil Lee from the Royals. For their former top prospect, the Red Sox are getting Cordero, Winckowski, and a total of three players to be named later from both other teams involved. Jeff Passan also summarizes the upside of the trade for each team:

On face, this trade looks good for all three teams involved, but the most apparent upside is in the Mets’s favor. New York traded away a relief prospect and one player to be named later and in return are getting Khalil Lee, an outfield prospect who should be close to Major League ready with 60 grade power and good outfield defense headlined by a strong arm. Lee strikes out quite a bit, but also walks at a great rate and provides some speed as a complement. He has consistently posted OBPs in the .340-.400 range, which is excellent. Overall, he’s a very athletic prospect who still has great upside for the Mets and, as he was with the Royals, is a top 10 organizational prospect.

For the Red Sox, volume was clearly important in the return, as they will ultimately get five players in return for dealing Benintendi. Still, this doesn’t mean that the quality of the return is diminished: if anything, this trade could very easily look like a huge win for the Red Sox down the line. Their headliner in return is Franchy Cordero, who will immediately take Benintendi’s spot in the Red Sox outfield in 2021. Cordero is a 26 year old outfielder whose primary draw is that he hits the ball hard. Really hard. In 154 plate appearances in 2018 (the most Cordero has had in any season in the Majors), his average exit velocity was 94.1 MPH; among all MLB hitters with at least 150 plate appearances that season, Cordero’s average exit velocity was 4th, and only two hitters in baseball had higher average exit velocities in 2020. Moreover, Passan did call Cordero “toosly as hell,” and that’s due to more than just his raw power. Cordero has great foot speed and a very good arm, giving him the potential to be a threat on the basepaths as well as a solid defender. Despite having made his MLB debut four years ago, Cordero is still a very raw player who hasn’t gotten a full-time MLB job yet, and the Red Sox are hoping that he will blossom with that opportunity.

Beyond Cordero, the Red Sox also acquired Winckowski, who wasn’t even a Met for two weeks after he had come to the team from the Blue Jays in the Steven Matz trade. This would seem to indicate that Winckowski is hardly a role player, but he’s still a very solid pickup for a Red Sox team that lacks both farm system depth and good pitching. Look no further than 2018 for evidence that Winckowski can be a successful pitcher: he posted a solid 19.4 K-BB% in low-A that season which coupled with a low home run rate for a 2.78 ERA and a 2.77 FIP. His strikeout rates decreased and he allowed more walks as he was promoted twice in 2019, starting the season in A ball and moving up to high-A, and while he posted an even lower ERA at A ball, hitters started catching up to him more at high-A, where he ended up with a 3.19 ERA and a 4.20 FIP in 53.2 innings pitched. Whether Winckowski can maintain the low home run rates he has sported over his last two seasons remains to be seen, and he is not quite Major League ready yet, but he’s absolutely solid pitching depth for the Red Sox and should make a difference on the Major League level soon. The Red Sox are also waiting on three players to be named later, which speaks to the difficulty of evaluating minor league players without any statistics from 2020. These players will likely remain undetermined for a while, at least until minor leaguers get on the field again in 2021.

Meanwhile, the largest gamble in this trade by far was made in the Kansas City front office. The Royals opened the off-season with several free agent signings to prove that the team wants to win in 2021, but now they’ve made their first move that sacrifices future production for the present. Cordero and Lee both held a lot of promise for the Royals, and they’ve foregone that in hopes of capturing success in the short term with Benintendi. Even after the signings of Carlos Santana and Mike Minor, the Royals didn’t seem to be finished with their off-season, and many reports indicated that they were still looking for a left fielder as well as a left-handed bat following the retirement of Alex Gordon. They’ve now satisfied those criteria in Benintendi, the former #1 overall prospect in baseball who hasn’t quite had the Major League track record to back that up. Still, Benintendi is a big get, and he continues to diversify a Royals lineup that was previously very light on walks. As Royals Review notes, the additions of Santana and Benintendi means that two Royals hitters in 2021 will have career walk rates over 10%, a relative rarity in the Royals lineups of the last decade:

From a Royals perspective, I see the trade this way: ignoring 2020 (as many people are), Benintendi has established his floor as a league average hitter and defender who will thus post 2 WAR at a minimum every year; that is, at his worst, Benintendi clears the threshold for a quality everyday starting position player. Moreover, he still has the potential to provide far more than that, as he did in 2018 when he had a 123 wRC+ and was worth a full 4.4 fWAR. There are obvious difficulties with moving to Kauffman stadium: he will have a much larger left field to manage, and he will also get half of his plate appearances in a stadium that is one of the least home run friendly venues in baseball. Still, Kauffman is a very friendly park for extra base hits that aren’t home runs, and Benintendi is capable of hitting plenty of those.

The bottom line is this: the Royals jumped on an opportunity to acquire a very talented left fielder when his price was down, giving up their third or fourth best outfield prospect and a Major League outfielder who has played in just 95 big league games in four years, to get him. They are also on the hook for two PTBNL, of course, but for now Cordero and Lee are certainly the most important pieces of the deal.

In the context of the franchise, Kansas City has made it very clear that they’re buying into 2021 without reservation, now at the cost of prospects. While this feels a little outlandish given their recent performance, with a lot of players on the roster having very high ceilings and a lot of pitching talent on the cusp of the Major Leagues, the Royals have the ability to challenge for a playoff spot if enough things go right. In the larger context of Major League Baseball, the Royals have been the league’s most aggressive team this off-season relative to their 2020 performance, and that is also incredibly promising. If nothing else, it comes in stark contrast with the division rival Tigers, who have been at the bottom of the division with the Royals since 2018 but have been in their rebuild even longer, acquiring top picks for the last five years that have comprised the majority of their progress in building their farm system.

In addition, the team has hardly restricted itself in any way whatsoever this off-season: the Royals have seven players set to earn at least $5M in 2021, and by the end of the 2022 season all seven of those players could be free agents (only Whit Merrifield and Mike Minor have club options for 2023). Dayton Moore has assembled a team that provides upside and intrigue for 2021 and 2022, and in doing so he has traded away no pitching, kept the farm system almost entirely intact, and left himself with almost no money dedicated to the team beyond 2022. The Royals have the players now to try and win in 2021, and they also have the money and prospects remaining in the system to try and win beyond that as well. Now they’re left to see whether the team can live up to its promise.

Ryan Ruhde

Cubs, Royals and general analysis writer. Emory University Psychology Major/Music Minor and Pre-Med, class of 2023. Find me on Twitter @ruhdolph

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