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Benintendi ready to step up in Betts' absence 

@IanMBrowne
February 13, 2020

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- In case you haven’t heard, the Red Sox lost the best leadoff man in their history when they traded Mookie Betts to the Dodgers on Monday. The numbers that Betts posted over the last couple of years are gaudy and irreplaceable. Yet somebody has to bat

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- In case you haven’t heard, the Red Sox lost the best leadoff man in their history when they traded Mookie Betts to the Dodgers on Monday.

The numbers that Betts posted over the last couple of years are gaudy and irreplaceable.

Yet somebody has to bat at the top of interim manager Ron Roenicke’s lineup.

Fortunately, the Red Sox have a willing candidate who has just the right skill set to set the table for a talented group of run producers named J.D. Martinez, Rafael Devers and Xander Bogaerts.

Andrew Benintendi said on Wednesday that he’d be fine moving back to the top of the lineup -- even though former manager Alex Cora’s decision to put him there early last season didn’t go so well.

“I’ll go wherever Rags [Roenicke] puts me,” Benintendi said. “Wherever that is, I’ll be fine with that.”

You almost get the sense Benintendi craves the chance of redemption at leadoff to disprove the narrative that the role somehow got in his head.

Fact of the matter is, as Benintendi knows full well, he just wasn’t a good hitter in general last year. His placement in the lineup had nothing to do with it. And for someone who has hit his entire life, it was a very strange thing for Benintendi to go through.

So what happened?

“I think that was just me struggling and me trying to create hits and stuff like that, and swinging at pitches I shouldn’t have been,” said Benintendi. “I was just trying to do more than what I should have been doing.”

The hitter Benintendi is describing sounds like the anti-Benintendi. That 2019 version isn’t him, and probably will never be him again, right?

“God, no,” said Benintendi. “I’ve always known the strike zone.”

Benintendi is also human. The Red Sox were coming off a World Series and a franchise record of 108 wins. Everyone on the team wanted to do it again.

It was somewhat surprising that Cora made the switch he did to start the season considering how successful the Betts-Benintendi 1-2 tandem was the year before.

So Benintendi dug himself a hole, started pressing early and was never himself the whole year, other than small spurts. But he is adamant it had nothing to do with batting first. And the fact that his struggles resumed after going back to the No. 2 hole proves that.

Once the disappointing 84-78 season ended, and Benintendi had some time to decompress, it was clear to him what led to his mediocre line of .266/.343/.431 that included just 72 runs (down from 103 the year before), 13 homers and 68 RBIs. In 48 games at leadoff, which covered 235 plate appearances, Benintendi slashed .256/.355/.412.

“Yeah, and I realized it during the season, too -- pitches up and away and up and in that I would swing at and I can’t do anything with those. Like during that time, it was stupid, honestly,” Benintendi said. “I don’t know why I was swinging at all those.”

When Benintendi swung at the right pitches, he did damage. How many players have 40 doubles in a down year like he did? That’s proof that his fluid and pretty swing from the left side didn’t go anywhere. He just got himself out too many times.

The fact Benintendi struck out 140 times -- a jump of 34 strikeouts from the year before in 46 fewer plate appearances -- is a clear sign that the lack of discipline was indeed the main thing that ailed him.

Looking at Boston’s roster, Benintendi is easily the best candidate to bat first. Alex Verdugo -- the main player acquired in the Betts trade -- could be a good fit there in time. But it might be too soon to put that on his plate when he will already be acclimating to a new team and a new environment.

“If Benny had what he had the year before and has a .380 on-base percentage, I think that works out really well,” said Roenicke.

In actuality, Benintendi’s OBP was .366 in 2018, but he was a near-daily force, producing a sturdy .830 OPS.

“I think Benny learned something last year,” said Roenicke. “He is an on-base guy and he’s also a hitter. He’s not up there just swinging at everything. He takes pitches, he goes the other way, he’s really just a pure hitter. If he ends up there, I’m fine with him leading off. We’ll have those discussions with him later when we start playing games and try to figure out how everybody fits in.”

Odds are, Benintendi will be the man that Roenicke deems the best fit batting first -- particularly against right-handers.

“It’s just like any other spot in the lineup,” Benintendi said. “You just have to hit first in the first inning. Other than that, it’s the same. I don’t mind it at all. If I need to do it, I’ll do it.”

Ian Browne has covered the Red Sox for MLB.com since 2002. Follow him on Twitter @IanMBrowne and Facebook.