Ohio Clubs Swap Outfielders, Headlined by Will Benson

Will Benson
David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Late last week, the Reds and Guardians swapped young outfielders, with Cincinnati acquiring 24-year-old Will Benson from Cleveland in exchange for 21-year-old Justin Boyd, a 2022 second-round pick. The trade gives the Reds’ outfield mix a source of left-handed power, which they sorely lacked, as the Guardians pick up a long-term prospect in exchange for a player who was going to have a hard time emerging from a crowded field of similarly skilled young players on their own roster.

The 14th overall pick in the 2016 draft, Benson made his big league debut in 2022 and was in the majors long enough to exhaust rookie eligibility. Deployed almost entirely against right-handed pitchers — he took 55 of his 61 plate appearances against righties — he only managed to hit .182 in a small big league sample. Benson has had contact-related question marks since he was drafted; “will he hit enough?” was the big question about his prospectdom. Plus-plus raw power and arm strength gave him an everyday right fielder’s ceiling if he can.

Benson traversed the minors striking out at a 30% clip and never hit better than .238 at any level. But even as he struck out at an alarming rate, he has typically walked enough and gotten to enough power to perform above league average at each stop. In 2022, his age-24 season, his strikeout rate was suddenly a manageable 22.7%. There has not been a change to his swing that I can identify, though it’s worth noting that his raw swing rate is a measly 37%, which would be one of the lowest in all of MLB; in 2021, per Synergy Sports, it was 46%. It’s possible he has become discerning within the strike zone in a way that has helped his bat-to-ball skills play at a 40- or 45-grade, but visual assessment of his swing still generates a lot of concern around in-zone swing and miss, especially against fairly common letter-high fastballs. The 35+ FV grade with which Benson graduated (a grade befitting a narrow, situational big leaguer with one premium tool) would not change given this new information about his approach.

It’s more feasible for a rebuilding team like Cincinnati to give Benson a big league opportunity to see if the improvements will hold water at the hightest level than it would be for a competitive club like Cleveland. Even though the Guardians might want a platoon partner for Oscar Gonzalez in right field, Josh Naylor, Josh Bell, Will Brennan and George Valera are all lefty-hitting candidates clogging the 40-man at RF/DH. The Reds’ lefty-hitting 40-man outfielders are Jake Fraley, TJ Friedl, and Michael Siani — viable big leaguers all, but none with impact power like Benson’s.

To acquire him, the Reds parted with Boyd, who is coming off a .373/.490/.577 line in his draft year at Oregon State. He did not play in 2020 and began to force his way into the Beavers’ lineup consistently in 2021 before playing a full slate in 2022. The highest-drafted player who was not on my pre-draft rankings, he signed for slightly under slot to help the Reds fit their high school draft picks into their bonus pool but still got about $800,000. Prospects who get that big a bonus tend to fall in the 35+ FV tier, and Boyd does have some exciting, hitterish elements. He tracks pitches well, can make in-flight adjustments to breaking balls, and generates doubles pop with just the flick of his wrists. It’s tough to profile as a righty-hitting corner outfielder, though, and he looks vulnerable enough in on his hands to have been left off the draft rankings and Reds prospect list.

Moving Benson cleared a 40-man spot for the Guardians, which allowed them to claim former White Sox pitcher Jason Bilous off of waivers. In essence, they traded Benson for two pieces: one who helps the pitching depth in the short term, the other a long-term prospect who the scouting industry has less history with due to the pandemic and Boyd’s few underclass at-bats.

Eric Longenhagen is from Catasauqua, PA and currently lives in Tempe, AZ. He spent four years working for the Phillies Triple-A affiliate, two with Baseball Info Solutions and two contributing to prospect coverage at ESPN.com. Previous work can also be found at Sports On Earth, CrashburnAlley and Prospect Insider.

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1 year ago

Smart move by the Guardians to clear that extra roster spot. I hope Benson does well, he’s a great community presence and super likable personality.