Benson vs. Brennan
Jim and Kevin go back and forth on two of Cleveland's breakout outfield prospects
Kevin: In the spring of 2007, I sat distraught and dejected on my senior prom night. Seated in front of a plate of undercooked, unflavored chicken at an overpriced Medina county restaurant, the saving grace was that I wasn't alone in my dismay. Two other peers of mine at the table shared my despondent body language. Considering the lack of chemistry that each of us had with our respective dates, it was as though the three of us were bonded by our acknowledgement that we clearly were not in the long-term plans of our dates. We were merely fillers, who were only in the spot we were in because better options weren't available.
I imagine a similar dynamic was in play a year ago today, when the Cleveland baseball club trotted out the following starting outfielders in a 4-2 victory over Oakland:
Oscar Mercado (LF)
Bradley Zimmer (CF)
Daniel Johnson (RF)
Fast forward a year later, and not only is the current Cleveland outfield completely revamped (and significantly upgraded), but there are several compelling outfielders in Columbus and Akron. While a few are already on the 40-man roster (George Valera, Jhnonkensy Noel, Richie Palacios), a couple outfielders currently wearing Columbus Clippers uniforms are not on the 40-man roster. Both outfielders have similar sounding names, but there are also noticeable differences in their profiles as well as their professional backgrounds.
Jim, let's discuss Will Benson and Will Brennan. Which one excites you more? Is it feasible to keep both players in the organization going forward or should they trade one? Before we get into all of that, is it fair to stay that Will Benson's drastically reduced strikeout rate this season is nothing short of stunning?
Jim: You know, Kevin, looking at that trio in the outfield, it makes me long for the days of Drew Stubbs and David Murphy. We certainly are long past the 2011 season, when Grady Sizemore, Shin Soo-Choo, and Michael Brantley were our outfielders, and while we are about to talk about two really exciting outfielders, you don’t have to look too far back to see that Zimmer and Clint Frazier were both highly regarded outfielders who looked to anchor the Cleveland outfield for years to come.
While I uttered Frazier and Zimmer for this discussion, the two Wills are vasty different players for numerous reasons. As a prospect beatnik over the years, I’d cop out to your first question and say that both excite me for the very simple reason that they’ve clearly utilized their skills over their varied and different minor league careers to get to a point in Triple A in which they’ve both made a case to not only be put on the 40-man roster, but to become potential factors on the active roster in 2023. However, there’s a chance that one or both could even contribute in 2022 should the roster shuffle a bit before the trade deadline on August 2. For this reason, they both could be a part of that “roster shuffling” in the form of a trade, but that line of thinking is addressed here.
While both players are high on my list with regards to the day-to-day box scores, Will Benson is probably the guy that I’m most “curious” about going forward. In Benson, you have a former first round draft pick with incredible physical gifts, at 6’5” and 230 pounds. While I hate using terms like “floor” and “ceiling”, his ceiling has always been high, but because of this pedigree, some isolated statistical struggles have lead many to begin to disregard him as a prospect. Yes, he’s carried 30% plus K rates and low batting averages, but I want to save the deeper statistical dive for later in the piece. Benson has gone from a top prospect, to falling out of the top 50 in many national rankings, and to the 30s and 40s in many of the local rankings. But this year, we’ve seen that “aha” moment with a massive drop in that K%, a boost in his already prodigious power production, but I’m getting WAY ahead of myself.
As far as keeping both players long term, the last thing the Guardians need to do is trade away outfielders with any kind of upside. Both Benson as I’ve mentioned, and Brennan have added depth to a position that the Guardians have struggled to fill. In front of them are a slew of interesting prospects already producing, in Steven Kwan, Nolan Jones, Richie Palacios, and Oscar Gonzalez. This isn’t to mention Amed Rosario and Josh Naylor, who are also in front of them, although they are flexing in other positions. It’s likely the Guardians will make a move or two to help alleviate a growing 40-man concern, but I’m not sure Benson or Brennan provide sizable value in that regard, unless you are moving prospect for prospect, which may happen. Benson would likely bring back more value, just based on his athletic gifts seemingly melding together this year, and I haven’t even mentioned his defense.
As far as Benson’s growth, I’m not surprised at all. He has everything you want in a prospect. As I’ve mentioned, he’s athletically gifted, has plus swing speed, and generates the type of power that sends baseballs into the ether.
Before I dive more into Benson though, nothing excites me more than a player that really seems to show up out of nowhere. Brennan has seen leaps in every part of his game this year, including power. His journey from the 2019 draft to Triple A seems like a normal rise, but because of COVID, his jump has been fairly quick from level-to-level, which is a sure indicator that the Guardians brass love him. On top of that, Brennan is a true plus centerfielder, making majestic catches at every level he’s been at.
Kevin, why should we pay attention to Will Brennan?
Kevin: Is it possible that because Steven Kwan flew under the radar of so many in the fanbase and local media throughout 2021 (sans Mike Hattery, of course), some of us now are too eager to anoint every player in the Guardians system as "the next Steven Kwan” that shares a similar profile? It's important to note that Kwan is nearly in a league of his own when it comes to his bat-to-ball skills, pitch recognition and plate discipline. In the case of Will Brennan, like Kwan, he's made a significant leap in his third minor league season. Brennan's BB/K rate in 157 plate appearances at Akron was an impressive 1.06, while his current BB/K rate over 222 plate appearances in Columbus is a solid 0.71. He's another blossoming hitter in the Guardians organization possessing an aversion to whiffing at the plate, as he's currently sporting a paltry 8.7 SwStr%, which is virtually identical to Will Benson's SwStr% of 8.5%. (You'll be diving deeper into Benson's incredible transformation this season.)
Currently, Will Brennan leads all AAA International League players with at least 220 plate appearances in batting average (.338), while ranking sixth overall among the players in the same group in weighted on-base average (.388.) He has also recorded a noticeable jump in his isolated power, as he improved from an ISO% of .080 in 177 plate appearances in Double A last season as a 23 year old to .193 in 157 plate appearances in Double A this season as a 24 year old. The progress in this department is comparable to Steven Kwan's ISO increase from .102 in 2019 at High-A to an ISO at Double A of .202 in 2021. Brennan presently has an ISO of .138 in his 222 plate appearances in Triple A.
So, with Brennan, we are looking at a player with outstanding contact abilities, burgeoning power, and I haven't even discussed him being a true centerfielder as you mentioned. As someone who values exceptional outfield defense like few do, you should appreciate the fact that this miraculous, home run-robbing catch from Brennan took the spot on Sportscenter's Top Plays back on July 14th:
A couple questions for you, Jim. The first being when was the last time you actually watched Sportscenter? The second question for you is what type of quantum leap has Will Benson made this season in a few key areas? Just recently, Benson started 3 games at 1B for Columbus, where had previously never started a game at defensively in his entire minor league career.
Jim: I absolutely agree with the assessment that the Guardians are looking for specific skill sets in most of their major leaguers offensively that are similar to Kwan, but I firmly believe that Jose Ramirez was the poster child of this movement way back in 2011 and 2012. I think the belief is that in a worse case scenario you have an on base machine that can drive pitchers insane, and the best case scenario is you develop power and become J-Ram. The Kwan/J-Ram comparison when you go deep is a fun one, and while I don’t think Brennan fits this perfectly, I 100% agree that his flight through the system is based 100% on fitting that profile.
The one area that the Guardians perhaps ignore that contact profile are with players like Benson and Franmil Reyes, who both can produce the type of power that is rare in baseball. Obviously in Reyes, you can see the highs and the lows when that contact profile is skewed, and when you roll through Benson’s statistics over his time in the Guardians’ system, he DID have attributes that were similar to Reyes’s current profile. The difference has always been his eye at the plate. His LOWEST BB% was 12%, and that was his first professional season.
As you mentioned, Benson’s SwSt% is very similar to Brennan’s this year, and that transformation has been almost miraculous. While his eye has always been good at the plate, Benson has seen a 5% increase in walks this year (18.4%) from last (13.1%), while dropping his K% down almost 17%. (39.3% to 22.8%). While that 39.3% was certainly the outlier, Benson’s BB% has been 30% or higher his entire career. I have a firm belief that there are some issues with Triple A pitching this year, but even so, it’s clear that Benson has been a worker over the course of the past five years with regards to that contact profile, and you’ll often see these jumps once they click. You can see this brain at work back in a 2018 piece that Mike Hattery wrote in the Athletic. Benson was already talking about really impacting his contact rate, and keep in mind that Benson was 19 during that interview. Fast forward four years, and we are seeing that contact profile improving.
Not only is that contact profile improving, but the power behemoth that the Guardians drafted all those years ago has always been there. He has 17 homers in 86 games so far, and has been hitting tape measure shots. He’s also fifth in the league in both doubles and triples, and tied for 8th in the league with 16 stolen bases. He can absolutely fly, and is the most freakish athlete in the entire system. It’s worth noting here that he’s always been a standout in the outfield, and while I would give Brennan the nod here as a pure outfielder, Benson isn’t far behind him. When Benson was drafted out of high school, he played both first and the outfield. The fact that the Guardians hadn’t played Benson at first at all during his minor league career says it all. He’s the “anti-Franmil” in that regard.
But you mentioned Benson playing first base of late, which is an interesting transition to be sure. I’m surprised that this hasn’t happened prior to this year since Benson has had that in his back pocket since high school, and I think is one of the failings this organization has. They wait too long to make obvious moves. Benson could get plenty of first base reps while still maintaining the outfield skill, but they play “defense” here with nearly every positional transfer they make. That said, Benson is probably the one player in this system that can make that move fairly seamlessly because of his athletic ability. He’s already been making stellar plays at first. Is Benson at first base as a precursor to Franmil being dealt? While I hate adding to Twitter rumor, I can’t imagine Benson just randomly gets moved there for any other reason. No, it’s not a “Franmil is gone” guarantee, but I don’t doubt that a call was made just in case. Either way, in 2023, this will give Benson a lot more flexibility.
So as we round third and head for home, what are your general thoughts about Brennan and/or Benson getting the call-up? Both are more than ready, but have impediments at the big league level. With a strange outfield logjam, and with Miller and Naylor clogging first, and Reyes as basically a doorstop at DH, what are the chances we see either of these guys in Cleveland this year? I don’t know if they have the league pedigree to become a major piece in a trade. Do they get thrown in a deal, or will the Guardians’ front office do some cleaning at the big league level opening the door for Brennan and Benson to both get put on the 40-man roster, and make the final move to the bigs?
Oh, and SportsCenter? Is that still a thing?
Kevin: Speaking of SportsCenter, my head is still spinning from the marvelous sight of Cedar Point’s Sports Center complex on my drive to Sandusky last month. Perhaps if I had access to state-of-the-art ballparks and facilities like that when I was a kid playing little league, Luke Raley wouldn’t be the only major leaguer to have gone through the Highland baseball program. Alas, I was instead under the tutelage of former Cleveland player Ron Pruitt (he of a career 0.4 fWAR) and his batting cages that no longer occupy a spot along Route 18 in Medina, Ohio.
Anyways, today, Will Benson has officially been promoted by the Guardians, as Alex Call was demoted to Columbus with Anthony Gose placed on the 60-day injured list to make room for Benson on the 40-man roster. The speculation that occurred over the past couple days regarding Benson was that he could possibly be promoted with either Josh Naylor or Owen Miller heading to the IL in a corresponding move. However, both Naylor and Miller are in today’s lineup, so we are now trying to determine exactly where Benson fits on the current roster. As you mentioned, Jim, there is plenty of smoke regarding Franmil Reyes being on the move. Terry Pluto of Cleveland.com recently wrote that the team would “love to move Reyes” and has alluded to the organization being overall dissatisfied with Reyes’ conditioning habits and work ethic. For the sake of this column, let’s operate under the assumption that Reyes is dumped for a light return before tomorrow’s trading deadline since it appears that he’s also a strong candidate to be non-tendered in the offseason if they are unable to trade him before then.
With Reyes out of the picture, and Kwan locked in at LF with a resurgent Myles Straw manning CF, that leaves RF, 1B and DH as potential spots for Benson. (Although Benson could also play CF on the seldom day off for Straw.) With the amount of wear and tear he’s carrying, it is clear that opening the DH spot for Naylor is now a priority for the organization moving forward. Considering how Francona generally operates in terms of LHB/RHB facing LHP/RHP, let’s pencil Benson as the starting 1B against RHP with Naylor as the DH and Nolan Jones in RF. When a southpaw is starting for the opponent, I would expect to see Oscar Gonzalez in RF (once he’s activated from the IL) with Miller at 1B and Naylor remaining at DH. Of course, that’s unless Jose Ramirez is getting a day off at 3B to DH, and Ernie Clement gets his day in the sun at 3B.
Ultimately, Benson is the one who got the call to get his well-deserved opportunity in the big leagues, while Brennan waits for his shot as he continues to produce formidable results in Columbus. It is quite possible that his chance to prove he belongs on an MLB field will come from another organization. Nearly every team that is acting as a seller at this deadline could greatly benefit from a long-term upgrade in their outfield, so teams such as Miami, Oakland and Pittsburgh would all seemingly have at least some level of legitimate interest in Brennan. With reports surfacing that A’s catcher Sean Murphy is a top target of the Guardians, a prospect like Brennan would serve more so as a secondary piece in a trade for a player of Murphy’s magnitude. Perhaps, with the Guardians organization proving today how highly they view Benson could make top prospect and darling of the Guardians fanbase, George Valera, the centerpiece for a Murphy trade considering the corner outfield depth Cleveland possesses both on the big league roster and elsewhere in the farm system. We’ll know the answer on that question in less than 24 hours, but we are now aware that the Will Benson era in Cleveland has officially begun and it was made possible due to truly remarkable improvements made by Benson in 2022.