The Reds aren’t done adding outfielders. After recently signing Chad Pinder, Nick Martini, and Nick Plummer to minor-league contracts, the club acquired outfielder Will Benson from the Guardians in exchange for 2022 second-round pick Justin Boyd, another outfielder, and cash or a player to be named later. Unlike Pinder, Martini, and Plummer, Benson needed to be added to the 40-man roster. To make room, the Reds designated infielder Alejo Lopez for assignment.
The Guardians drafted Benson as a high-schooler out of Atlanta with the 14th overall pick in 2016. He’s still just 24 years old and made his major-league debut for Cleveland last August. Benson stands at an imposing 6-foot-5, 230 pounds, hits left-handed, and plays all three outfield positions, although his most extensive experience has come in left and center field. He also made three Triple-A starts at first base last season.
A career .222/.350/.443 batter in six minor-league seasons, Benson has largely been a “three true outcome” hitter: he hits a lot of home runs (94 home runs, .221 ISO) and draws a bunch of walks (16.8 BB%), but he also swings and misses quite a bit (32.4 K%). Benson was a top-10 prospect for the Guardians at one point, per MLB Pipeline, peaking at #7 in 2018. However, his contact issues saw him plummet down the list until he was eventually unranked in 2021 and 2022.
Benson made some positive changes in 2022, however, posting a career-low 22.7% strikeout rate and cutting his swinging-strike rate (percentage of whiffs on all pitches) to 8.7% when it had previously never been below 14.1% at any level. He did that while maintaining strong power (17 HR, .244 ISO) and walk (18.7 BB%) numbers in Triple-A Columbus. Benson’s .278 batting average and .426 on-base percentage were also personal bests, and he had the highest wRC+ (153) among all Triple-A hitters last season (min. 400 PA). He also has some wheels, boasting 86 career steals in the minors and a 79.6% success rate.
Benson got a well-deserved promotion to the big leagues last on August 1 and spent the rest of the season with the Guardians. His playing time was limited, though, as he got only 61 plate appearances in 28 games. Benson struggled in his first taste of MLB, hitting .182/.250/.200 with a 33 wRC+, which isn’t surprising for a young player who got sparse opportunities. Of note, Benson’s sprint speed ranked in the 94th percentile and would’ve been first on the Reds (29.3 ft/s).
Although he does have three minor-league options left, Benson should have a strong chance to make the Reds out of spring training. The team will have a lot of outfielders in camp, but aside from Wil Myers and Jake Fraley, none are guaranteed to make the team. Benson may very well have more power than any other outfield contender and knows how to get on base, although he’ll have to prove that can translate at the big-league level as well as keep his strikeouts down. He’s shown more power against right-handed pitchers (.233 ISO) than left-handers (.181) in his minor-league career, but he’s maintained fairly even platoon splits overall (.800 OPS vs. RHP, .772 vs. LHP), which could work to his advantage.
Farewell, Justin Boyd and Alejo Lopez
Boyd was on the lower end of the Reds’ top-30 prospect lists after being drafted in the second round out of Oregon State last summer. He was the 73rd overall selection, but MLB Pipeline ranked him as its 153rd-best player in the draft. It was a clear money-saving pick for the Reds, who had selected Cam Collier with the 18th overall pick and knew he would command a signing bonus above the slot value. The team was high enough on Boyd to draft him, but he was ultimately expendable. Last year, we compared him to a “right-handed T.J. Friedl” in our recap of Cincinnati’s first-day draft picks.
Lopez will be exposed to waivers, allowing any of the other 29 teams to pick him up. If he goes unclaimed, the Reds can outright him to the minor leagues and he’ll almost certainly be invited to spring training. The 26-year-old has strong contact ability, but he’s limited offensively because he doesn’t hit for power or draw many walks. He had a 76 wRC+ in 156 plate appearances with the Reds in 2022. Although Lopez still had a minor-league option remaining, the Reds aren’t lacking in infield options, which likely contributed to their decision to remove him from the 40-man roster.
In addition to the battle for shortstop between Jose Barrero and Kevin Newman, the Reds have also invited shortstop Richie Martin, third baseman Jason Vosler, and utility-man Matt Reynolds to spring training — all of whom have previous MLB experience. Nick Solak, Nick Senzel, and Chad Pinder all have infield experience, too. Top-10 prospects Elly De La Cruz, Noelvi Marte, Matt McLain and Christian Encarnacion-Strand will also be in big-league camp. While none have played in Triple-A yet, the Reds have been aggressive with placing prospects on the Opening Day roster in recent years if they’ve proven they’re ready (e.g., Jonathan India, who also never played at Triple-A).
Featured image by Minda Haas Kuhlmann