Red Sox, Yankees battle for MLB's No. 1 prospect supremacy in Benintendi, Torres

Tuesday January 31st, 2017

The storied Yankees-Red Sox rivalry is in one of its less intense phases at the moment: The two teams haven't played in the same postseason since 2009, haven't finished within half a dozen games of each other in the final standings since '10 and haven't seriously contended for postseason spots simultaneously since '11. Those trends may very well continue in 2017—the Red Sox are coming off a division title, and the Yankees have committed themselves to a retooling, if not a full rebuild—but an interesting battle is shaping up with regards to a pair of blue-chip prospects whose stock has skyrocketed over the past year: Boston outfielder Andrew Benintendi and New York shortstop Gleyber Torres, neither of whom was considered his team's top prospect a year ago.

So far, two of the four major prospect lists, those of ESPN and MLB.com, have anointed the 22-year-old Benintendi as their No. 1 prospect, with the 20-year-old Torres ranking fourth and third, respectively. The other two lists, those of Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus, appear to be a couple of weeks away from release, but the expectation is that both players will wind up in the top tier, with Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson possibly also in the mix for the top spot.

Prospect evaluation is an inexact science, of course, and it's worth noting that opinions differ from evaluator to evaluator and publication to publication. Rankings tend to be fluid, particularly as players gain exposure to new levels. It doesn't always work out as neatly as it did in 2016, when Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager, who topped all four lists, won NL Rookie of the Year honors. Twins centerfielder Byron Buxton, who topped lists in 2014 and '15 and generally ranked second coming into last year, scuffled through half a season worth of playing time in the big leagues before breaking out with nine homers this past September. Rangers infielder Jurickson Profar, the 2013 consensus No. 1, is still trying to get his career on track after missing all of '14 and most of '15 with shoulder injuries. Thus far, Mike Trout (generally second or third in 2011 and '12) has eclipsed Bryce Harper (No. 1 in those years).

With that in mind, let's take a closer look at Benintendi and Torres and how they got there.

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Andrew Benintendi, OF, Red Sox

Heading into 2016, the Red Sox' top prospect on three of those four lists (all but ESPN) was second baseman Yoan Moncada, who was third via BA, seventh via BP and MLB and 17th via ESPN, behind third baseman Rafael Devers, who ranked seventh. After Seager, Buxton and others had surpassed the playing-time thresholds to be considered prospects (130 at-bats or 50 innings) around the All-Star break, Moncada topped the MLB and BA midseason lists and ranked among the top five of the other two. But an ugly September showing with the Red Sox (4-for-19 with 12 strikeouts, one walk and a base-running gaffe that buried him on the bench) left some evaluators with a less-than-favorable impression. "[I]t was as if he’d never seen a breaking ball in his life," wrote ESPN prospect guru Keith Law in ranking him 17th this year.

On Dec. 6, the Red Sox dealt Moncada to the White Sox as the centerpiece of a four-player package via which they acquired Chris Sale. Despite his $63 million pricetag when they signed him in 2015—half in bonus, half as a penalty for exceeding MLB's international spending limit—Boston felt it could part with the 21-year-old Cuban due to a combination of his September struggles, the ongoing presence of Dustin Pedroia at second, the pending arrival of Devers at third base and the sudden emergence of Benintendi.

After winning the Dick Howser Trophy, the Golden Spikes Award and BA's College Player of the Year award at the University of Arkansas in 2015, Benintendi was drafted by the Red Sox with the No. 7 pick. He did strong work at two Class A stops that summer and came into the 2016 season ranked as high as 16th (BA) and as low as 46th (BP). He started the year at Class A Salem and set the Carolina League ablaze by hitting .341/.413/.563 in 34 games, socking only one homer but ripping 13 doubles and seven triples. Promoted to Double A Portland in mid-May, Benintendi hit .295/.357/.515 with eight homers in 63 games before being called up to the Red Sox in early August.

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Benintendi ranked among the top 11 prospects on the four midseason lists, with Law placing him third. Though he missed three weeks with a left knee sprain, he hit an impressive .295/.359/.476 with two homers in 118 plate appearances (105 at-bats), then went 3-for-9 with a homer in the Division Series against the Indians. He spent most of his big league time in leftfield, a position where he had just four games of experience prior to his promotion; most of his minor league time has come in centerfield, where he rates highly if not as highly as Red Sox incumbent Jackie Bradley Jr.

Benintendi is not a big guy; he's listed at 5'10" and 170 pounds, but Law wrote that he's closer to 5'8". Even so, his compact and sometimes violent lefthanded swing "generates way more ‘oomph’ than you would expect from a hitter his size" (via BP's Jeffrey Paternostro) and is considered to have plus power (60 on the 20–80 scouting scale) thanks to his quick hands and loft, which figures to generate 20 homers and a ton of doubles per year. More special than that is his hit tool, which is generally considered plus-plus (70 grade). As the Boston Globe's Alex Speier reported for BA, "Multiple evaluators believe that Benintendi has a chance to be a perennial All-Star who competes for batting titles. ‘He’s a once-in-a-decade hitter,’ one said.”

Elsewhere, MLB.com lauds his "astute pitch recognition and strike-zone management" with which "he repeatedly barrels balls and holds his own against southpaws." Benintendi’s speed is merely above-average (55 grade), but it plays up thanks to his good instincts; he hit 13 triples and stole 17 bases in his 418 total plate appearances across three levels. Defensively, his arm is average—he won't displace Mookie Betts in rightfield either—but his range is plus, and he could be a Gold Glove contender in left, assuming he learns how to play the Green Monster. He'll almost certainly start the year in the majors and could be the lineup's No. 2 hitter.

Gleyber Torres, SS, Yankees

Heading into 2016, prospect hounds were particularly split when it came to the Yankees. Two publications apiece tabbed shortstop Jorge Mateo and rightfielder Aaron Judge as the Yankees' best, with dramatic divergences of opinion of the two from among the group: Judge ranked as high as 18 (BP) and as low as 76th (BA); Mateo was as high as 26th (BA) and as low as 65th (BP). The gap had closed somewhat by midseason, albeit with Judge enjoying the higher ranking from three of the four; nobody had late-2016 breakout Gary Sanchez, who hit 20 homers in 53 games for the Yankees and finished second in the AL Rookie of the Year voting, higher than 36th. Judge homered in his first major league plate appearance on Aug. 13, but he ended up hitting .179/.263/.345 in 95 plate appearances before suffering a season-ending oblique strain. Mateo, meanwhile, scuffled in a season at Class A Tampa that included a suspension for insubordination.

The Yankees ended up remaking their minor league system by becoming sellers at the deadline, trading closer Aroldis Chapman to the Cubs, reliever Andrew Miller to the Indians, outfielder Carlos Beltran to the Rangers and starter Ivan Nova to the Pirates; by the time the dust settled, New York had control of seven players from among BA's midseason top 100. At that point, Torres, the centerpiece of the Cubs' four-player package for Chapman, was ranked 27th by BA, below Mateo (19th) and outfielder Clint Frazier (one of four players added in the Miller haul, ranked 21st), but things have changed dramatically since then.

Signed out of Venezuela for a $1.7 million bonus by the Cubs in 2013, Torres was just 17 when he made his professional debut the following year and has always been very young for his level. After spending most of 2015 at Class A South Bend, he came into last season ranked as high as 15th (ESPN) and as low as 41st (BA and BP). Playing as a 19-year-old, he hit .270/.354/.421 at the Cubs' and Yankees' high A-ball stops, with 11 homers and 21 steals in 547 plate appearances. He notably bumped Mateo over to second base once he got to Tampa, but it was in the Arizona Fall League where he really lapped the field, hitting .403/.513/.645 with three homers en route to the league's batting title and MVP award; he was the first player under 21 years old to win it.

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Listed at 6'1" and 175 pounds, Torres draws raves for his pitch recognition skills, exceptionally quick hands and advanced approach at the plate. He draws walks and he's excellent at hitting to the opposite field—one of the signature skills of another Yankees shortstop who comes to mind. Torres's overall hit tool grades out as plus, with his power above average; via MLB, "His power projections seem to increase each year as he adds strength and experience, and he now looks like he'll deliver 20-plus homers on an annual basis in his prime."

Defensively, Torres has a plus arm (Law calls it plus-plus) and soft hands, but there's debate over his ability to stay at shortstop; his speed is generally considered average, and while most see enough range for him to stick at short, Paternostro wrote that he "lacks the first step or overall range ... to grade out at average for short, but could be above-average at second or third." It’s fair to stay that the consensus is that he's a potential All-Star infielder, but the question is where. The Yankees won't have to decide immediately, as Torres is likely to start the year in Double A and probably won’t reach the majors until 2018.

Thanks in part to three last-place finishes from 2012 to '15, the Red Sox have spent the past few years amassing young talent, with Betts, Bradley and shortstop Xander Bogaerts already established, and others (including Devers, who has a 2018 ETA) on the way. The Yankees, who have taken longer to wean themselves from the cycle of surrendering first-round picks by signing qualified free agents, have Sanchez in place, with Torres, Judge, Mateo, Frazier and lefty Justus Sheffield in the pipeline and first baseman Greg Bird coming back from injury. Not all of them will pan out, but the two young cores, supplemented by their respective teams’ big spending to fill the gaps, should help revitalize the battle of the AL East titans in the coming years.

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