It is impossible to give any real grade to Will Benson’s debut season in Cleveland.
In 61 plate appearances over 28 games after he was called up on Aug. 1, Benson hit .182/.250/.200 with one extra-base hit, 19 strikeouts, and just three walks. He had more than one plate appearance in 16 of those games, started 15 of them, and got a full slate of at-bats in just 10.
Yes, the Guardians were churning through rookies and just working to stay afloat half the time, and yes, finding space for yet another athletic outfielder was tough with Steven Kwan sealing up left, Myles Straw earning a Gold Glove in center and Oscar Gonzalez looking pretty solid in right, but it still stinks they couldn’t find space for Benson. It was a year of what could have been as Cleveland works to figure out its supposed embarrassment of riches in the minors. To leave such a talent on the sidelines though, it’s just a bit sad.
Did you know that Benson was, by most metrics, the best hitter for the Columbus Clippers in 2022? Among those that weren’t rehabbing or got any real playing time (15 games or so) he led the team in OPS at .948, slugging at .522, OBP at .426(!), walk rate at 18.7%, home runs at 17, he was just behind Bo Naylor in at-bats per home run at 18.6, and the numbers just kind of go on like this. Adding to that, he’s like nine feet tall and runs like a gazelle. Baseball Savant places him in the 94th percentile in sprint speed, which places him tied for second with Straw. On a team of athletes he had all the raw tools, and judging from the numbers he posted in Columbus, he had some of the polish you’re looking for, too. Plus he can make a nice catch at the wall.
He has a handful of nice little catches like this. There was a game against the Orioles he started in center field, and he probably robbed like four extra-base hits because of range and his massiveness.
There are like three of these in that game alone. And finding his hitting highlights is easy because he has ten hits. Here’s an RBI double, his lone extra-base hit and one of three RBIs he had.
It’s not the most robust highlight reel — especially offensively—- but there are things there. And his finger gun action is pro-level.
He was barely able to be judged in the majors, and you have to wonder what the heck the point was of having him on the big club aside from having fresh bodies. It’s good for a young guy to get the experience of being on the big club, and to see what kind of leap he needs to take to get ready for true major league pitching, but considering how excellent he was in Columbus, was there really no way to give him more of a chance?
What probably hurt him the most, and maybe got in the way of the grander plan of the Guardians’ brass, is that Oscar Gonzalez just didn’t slow down. Gonzalez went through a slump or two, but then kept getting timely hits and started finding more and more power as the season wore on. It was fine for the team — they kept winning and he made himself a postseason hero and everyone loves him — but it wasn’t without its casualties. His batting profile, whether in the majors or minors, does not speak to a long-term successful career, though unicorns do exist. Shoot, I wrote about just that thing, how a good contact guy that hits it hard, sprays it around and can squeak out a walk now and again can still be a useful player. They do exist. Amed Rosario is literally on this team, and Tim Anderson is right there in Chicago. But these seem more like exceptions that prove the rule rather than the rule itself.
So with Benson, you just look around for any kind of slot for him. Everything he showed in Columbus speaks to a much more conventionally successful player, much lower risk with rewards in the 30ish dinger, center-of-the-offense type of player. At least in theory. He shouldn’t be a DH, he’s too athletic and that would be a waste of the value he could provide defensively. If Gonzalez holds onto right field going into 2023, maybe Francona can fall out of love with playing batless wonders at first so much. Who knows. He needs his shot, though.
Maybe we’ll forget about Benson next year, and some new young gun will show up. The big names that are boasted about in the minors are still making their way up, but it still seems a bit like malpractice to take a guy who came into his own in Triple-A this year and just shunt him aside, especially with all his raw tools and seeming polish. For as much as I like Kwan and Will Brennan and other guys like that, having a team full of undersized gap-to-gap hitters is not a recipe for the eventual title. Seeing Yordan Álvarez hit a ball a quarter mile to effectively seal the 2022 World Series or the range of huge dudes on the Phillies, or just with Aaron Judge or Bryce Harper mashing, it shows an archetype. Even Josh Bell is the kind of player that you can see in Benson if we’re not shooting so far into the stars.
There’s a need for big guys who clobber on this team. It was the backbone of the mid-90s, and somewhat the mid-2000s. That’s not the Cleveland Way anymore — they want to do it with all athletes that bring value in every way possible — but luckily he’s no leadfoot either. He’s simply one of the most athletic players on a team full of multi-tool wonders.
The Guardians might have forced the contention window open a bit earlier than planned, but I’d like to write this article next year about how Benson got his shot and flourished.
Will Benson’s 2022 Stats
We’re reviewing (almost) all the Guardians players from 2022 now through November, starting with the top-10 MVPs as voted on by eight Covering the Corner staff members. Players were awarded points based on their one through 10 individual rankings and were ranked as such. You can find all the Year in Review posts here.