Rangers left-hander Wes Benjamin appeared to be working toward a win in his first Major League start on Wednesday afternoon.
Benjamin took a two-run lead over the D-backs into the sixth inning at Chase Field. He then gave up back-to-back singles to start the inning, was pulled from the game and had to watch as Arizona scored six runs in the frame on its way to a 7-3 victory and a two-game series sweep.
Benjamin, who allowed three runs on seven hits and one walk in five-plus innings, took a no-decision after throwing 80 pitches. He’ll end the season with a 1-1 record and a 4.64 ERA in seven games (six relief appearances), but his real victory was positioning himself as a candidate for the 2021 rotation after not even being in big league camp in Spring Training.
“He has been great, honestly,” manager Chris Woodward said. “I think he’s got a lot to prove. He has a little chip on his shoulder when he gets out there to prove to the world he belongs up here and can pitch up here. He doesn’t take it as, 'I’m happy to be here.' He wants to prove he can pitch here and pitch really well. He does that every time he goes out there.”
Benjamin has reasons to pitch with a chip on his shoulder. He was a fifth-round Draft pick in 2011, out of the University of Kansas, who began his pro career recovering from Tommy John surgery and has had to fight his way up through the Rangers' system without being listed on any top prospect lists. Missing two months with a strained left elbow in 2018 didn’t help.
Benjamin went 7-6 with a 5.52 ERA over 25 starts and two relief appearances for Triple-A Nashville last season, and he was left off Texas' 40-man roster this past winter. But he impressed in Spring Training, and the Rangers brought him to Summer Camp.
“Until they can put a number on what's in my head and what's in my heart, they aren't going to know me,” Benjamin said. “If anything, that's made me the pitcher I am today. For me, the road hasn't been quite as easy. ... I've had my teeth kicked in every now and then and it's made me a better pitcher today, and I'm grateful for it.”
Benjamin said he hopes he has proven he can pitch at the big league level. He's at least made a strong case to be taken seriously next spring.
“He is not afraid,” Woodward said. “He is not scared, not afraid to throw the pitch over the plate. He’s got really good command. He attacks the strike zone. There are not a whole lot of chinks in the armor. He just maybe needs to get more of an opportunity.”
That may be coming. The Rangers are expected to have at least two spots open behind Lance Lynn, Kyle Gibson and Jordan Lyles going into Spring Training next year. Filling them through free agency doesn’t appear likely, Woodward said.
Gibson, who is signed for two more years, may be the only lock of the three. Lynn is the Rangers' ace, but he has only one more year before free agency, so he could be a trade candidate this offseason if Texas feels that’s the right move for the long term. Lyles, who is 1-6 with a 7.08 ERA in 11 games (eight starts) this season, is signed for next year, but he may not have a secure spot.
The Rangers have other young pitchers they are evaluating, and Benjamin may have moved to the head of the list. Left-hander Kolby Allard previously occupied that spot, but he is 0-6 with a 7.99 ERA in 10 games (eight starts) this season. Lefty Joe Palumbo has been going through a case of ulcerative colitis and has pitched in only two games.
Right-hander Kyle Cody has thrilled the Rangers this month, but he will finish with only 20-25 innings pitched after missing the past two seasons recovering from Tommy John surgery. Woodward said Cody will compete for a spot in the rotation next spring, but Texas is unsure how many innings he can be counted on to throw after his long road back.
Benjamin should have no such restrictions. He pitched 21 1/3 innings this season, plus what he accrued at the alternate training site before being called up on Aug. 11. Benjamin also had 135 1/3 innings at Nashville last season, which puts him ahead of Cody, Palumbo and Taylor Hearn, who is still being discussed as a starter option despite his limited work the past two years.
“It matters,” Woodward said. “That’s the endurance factor, being able to go out there every five days. Last year, [Benjamin] had a lot of innings. Some of these guys we are going to have limits on. Maybe he is a guy who we can just let run out there.”