While Andrew Benintendi was rising to the top of Draft boards as one of the nation’s best collegiate baseball players, he was keeping an eye on a Major League team about three hours away from the University of Arkansas. It was 2015, and the Royals were finding their way back to the World Series for a second straight year.
“It was electric,” Benintendi said about the Royals’ 2015 World Series championship, which he watched with college friends after he was drafted seventh overall that year by the Red Sox.
“I know the kind of energy and kind of play that [Royals manager] Mike [Matheny] and the front office want and expect,” Benintendi said Thursday from his home in Cincinnati. “I’m just going to go play as hard as I can and try to help the team, and that’s what it comes down to. Winning games and getting better.”
Benintendi and Matheny have known each other for some time, as Benintendi played with Matheny’s son Tate in the Red Sox's farm system. Their relationship goes back even further, though, when Benintendi’s Razorbacks beat Tate Matheny’s Missouri State Bears in the 2015 NCAA Super Regional.
When they played in Fayetteville, Ark., Mike Matheny couldn't help but notice Benintendi at the plate.
“Sweet swing,” Matheny said Thursday. “Trying to watch his swing through a scout’s eye, you see this guy had a real nice idea of plate awareness, and the stats go with that as well. Just didn’t have a lot of swing and miss, didn’t have a lot of chase. He’s not a great big guy, but back then, you could see the ball jumped off his bat different. It just had a different ball flight. You saw a lot of things that would probably lead in a direction that he was going to have some success, and that’s what he did right out of the box.”
The Red Sox drafted Benintendi and Tate Matheny in the first and fourth rounds, respectively, that summer. Their rivalry quickly turned into a friendship. Benintendi has spent a few offseasons in St. Louis, where Mike Matheny managed from 2012-18, and worked out with Tate Matheny frequently. Mike Matheny even threw a few batting practices for the players.
“Got to spend a little bit of time with him and saw that this is obviously a talented player and really liked the person as well,” Matheny said. “They were both quick on the phone yesterday. Tate called me, couldn’t believe it and was so excited for Andrew.”
Benintendi will take over left field after Alex Gordon’s retirement this offseason, and could slot in the No. 2 spot in the lineup, which saw some variance in 2020 among Royals hitters. Benintendi has seen the most success batting second in his career, hitting .281 across 960 plate appearances.
But Matheny noted that Benintendi’s presence immediately gives the lineup some depth, and he could hit anywhere. Benintendi, too, thinks his approach will fit well with Kauffman Stadium’s expansive ballpark.
“I’ve always loved playing there, and something about it, I feel like I see the ball well,” Benintendi said. “It’s exciting. It’s a big field. I feel like I’m a gap-to-gap hitter, and then those gaps there are pretty big, so let’s see if we can run a little bit.”
Benintendi says he’s healthy after missing all but 14 games in 2020 because of broken ribs, and he spent the offseason focusing on his diet and working on his swing to get back to what it was two years ago. He acknowledged that in '19, he changed his approach to try to lift the ball, seeking more power in his swing. It didn’t work the way he hoped it would, and his production -- coupled with injuries -- fell that season. After hitting .290/.366/.465 in '18, Benintendi hit .266/.343/.431 in ’19.
Now, he feels his swing is back to where it should be for the type of player he is.
“At the time, I think that’s where the game was, and it might be getting away from that a little bit now,” Benintendi said. “So I was trying to go up there and hit for more power, and I mean, I’m 5'9", 175 pounds, so I realized that I’m not going to be up there hitting 30 homers a year. Now I understand the player I am, the player I want to be. Physically, I feel back where I need to be, swing feels good. So just putting everything together.”
With a week before pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training, Matheny is in Arizona to prepare for his second season as Royals manager after an offseason full of acquisitions. Through trades and signings, the club brought in Benintendi, first baseman Carlos Santana, outfielder Michael A. Taylor and starting pitcher Mike Minor, and they brought back relievers Greg Holland and Wade Davis.
Each piece added has brought a new level of excitement for Matheny -- and a multitude of texts from his players about how encouraging the moves have been.
“I’ve been skipping around here like a fool all day,” Matheny said. “I’ve been excited about our club already. But adding a piece like this, and I’ve been hearing it from the guys too, they think it’s a huge statement by our organization. And it’s a huge statement to our fan base that man, watch. Just watch this. Because we’ve got some really cool pieces in place.”