Forget the payrolls: Walker Buehler, Andrew Benintendi show how Dodgers, Red Sox stay ahead
LOS ANGELES – It’s easy to roll your eyes at this World Series matchup and dismiss it as a battle of big-market behemoths, these Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers still playing merely because they rank No. 1 and 3 in payroll and enjoy resources beyond almost any other franchise.
Yet, it’s not just money that lifts these teams above all the others. Two examples will be on display when Game 3 commences Friday night at Dodger Stadium.
Walker Buehler and Andrew Benintendi aren’t nine-figure free agents, like J.D. Martinez and David Price, nor big-bucks international investments like Yasiel Puig or Hyun-Jin Ryu. They were Southeastern Conference rivals, blossoming in plain sight as the 2015 draft approached, and in Buehler’s case available to 23 other teams before the Dodgers selected him.
Friday, Buehler will take the mound for Game 3, the Dodgers’ best hope to dig into a 2-0 World Series deficit. Benintendi, with four hits in Game 1 and a key walk and ballet-like snag in left field in Game 2, is possibly halfway to a Series MVP trophy.
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That they’re in such high-leverage spots barely three years removed from college is a testament not to their teams’ cash but to culture, and the good fortune of getting drafted by clubs who, while far from perfect, trust and empower their scouting and development wing.
“Looking back now, I’m very fortunate to have gotten to this kind of organization,” Buehler, 24, told USA TODAY Sports. “There were 23 good players taken in front of me. I know a lot of them personally. And some of the development didn’t happen, or the organization put them in a bad position, or something like that.
“I was happy the Dodgers picked me, and I think they made a great pick. But the development is a huge part of it. The draft is a weird situation where the higher you go, the worse the team you’re on. There’s not a lot of poorly run, really good teams. So, to get drafted where I was, it’s a steppingstone into being where I am today.”
Fourteen of the 42 picks in 2015’s first round have made the major leagues. Only Alex Bregman, the No. 2 overall pick by the Houston Astros, has produced more Wins Above Replacement (14.2) than Benintendi (7.0) and Buehler (3.3).
While there weren’t many flat-out misses in the half-dozen picks before the Red Sox chose Benintendi seventh overall, the jury is out on a significant number of picks that came before the Dodgers chose Buehler at 24.
Like every draft prospect, Buehler and Benintendi had their warts. Buehler had a balky elbow his junior year at Vanderbilt and eventually required Tommy John surgery, as teams suspected. At 5-10 and 170 pounds, Benintendi had a relatively small frame for a corner outfielder, and just one productive season at Arkansas to his name.
That both clubs settled on the right guy was a triumph of trust, and, well, process.
The Red Sox’s Benintendi dossier extended to high school, when area scout John Pyle noted his favorable athleticism watching him play basketball. Benintendi caught the eye of Plains-area Red Sox scout Chris Mears at a Connie Mack tournament in Farmington, N.M.
In a twist of fate, Mears was reassigned the more fertile Southeast as Benintendi headed to Arkansas. A borderline obsession was hatched.
After an injury-plagued freshman season, Benintendi eschewed the summer wood-bat circuit and stayed at Arkansas, gaining strength, honing his approach and emerging for his sophomore year a different player.
“My freshman year,” says Benintendi, “I was hitting leadoff and would slap the ball the other way.
“My sophomore year was when I pretty much said, ‘Screw that, I’m just going to drive the ball.’ Ever since then, I am where I am.”
He led the SEC in batting average and home runs, but with the Red Sox holding an uncharacteristically high pick after a 71-91 season, upper management would need convincing.
Mears says he was as much impressed by Benintendi’s quiet confidence as he was the beautiful swing. He turned in what Mike Rikard, running his first draft as the Red Sox’s scouting director, termed “a very aggressive report.”
“It was an eye-opener,” says Rikard, now the Red Sox’s vice president of scouting. “We had no wood bat history. And on top of that, he was kind of a small player.”
This is where continuity matters: Mears, Rikard and a gaggle of Red Sox scouts have been with the organization at least 11 years. They also survived a front-office purge when former GM Ben Cherington was replaced later in 2015.
When Mears penned that aggressive report, Rikard knew where he was coming from. And finally went to see Benintendi himself, at a point he’d struck out just six times that season.
“I saw four at-bats,” Rikard recalls, “and he struck out in three of them. My head’s spinning a bit. Needless to say, after that game I changed my flight very quickly and stuck around the next day.
“It was important for me to not be stubborn based on what I saw.”
Meanwhile, the club analyzed the major league history of players Benintendi’s height and weight and found favorable results that dovetailed with Mears’ comparison of Benintendi to a young Jacoby Ellsbury.
By draft day, Benintendi was No. 2 on the Red Sox’s board, behind only Bregman.
“We’ve been together for a long, long time,” says Rikard. “Knowing each other has been a huge part of our success. We have continuity and understand each other’s subjectivity.”
Says Mears: “A lot of really good things happen here that I can see are based on the trust we have in one another.”
Some 3,000 miles across the country, a new Dodgers regime led by president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman and GM Farhan Zaidi was running its first draft.
Zaidi says the Dodgers regarded Buehler as a top 10 talent – they weren’t alone there – but an uneven junior season and concerns over the right-handers elbow scared many teams off. Zaidi says scouting director Billy Gasparino and assistant GM Josh Byrnes remained steadfast.
And picking at No. 24, the club opted to swing big at Buehler’s upside, even if Tommy John surgery looked imminent. Less than two months after drafting Buehler, the Dodgers announced he’d need the procedure.
“We felt this was a talent worth waiting a year and a half for,” says Zaidi.
Just two years after that surgery, Buehler was in the big leagues.
So what happened between surgery and making it to Chavez Ravine?
“We spend a lot of time with our players as part of the process, allowing them to self-assess and playing the game in a way that emphasizes their own strengths,” says Zaidi. “If you’re a pitcher, it’s really understanding which are your best pitches, which part of the strike zone you should work in.
“The raw ingredients are always there – and then it’s about making sure they understand what makes them good. That sounds really simple, but it’s sometimes a more nuanced process.
“In this day and age, with all the information out there, being able to use that and create a better understanding of what works and what doesn’t is a key part of the development process.”
And perhaps what separates Buehler from his peers still toiling a rung or two away from the majors.
He struck out 163 batters in 146 2/3 innings this season and, with a cocksure and fearless mentality, keeps getting the ball in the Dodgers’ biggest games: The one-game playoff to beat the Colorado Rockies for the NL West title, Game 7 of the NLCS where they vanquished the Milwaukee Brewers, and now Friday’s Game 3 to save the season.
The second batter he’ll face will be Benintendi, who he says homered off him in college and still holds in high regard for his skills and vibe alike.
“He’s got an air to him, a confidence to him,” Buehler says of Benintendi. “There’s a lot of big personalities on the Red Sox, and he’s one of those guys who’s OK being second fiddle, because he’s a really good player and really good dude, but he doesn’t have to be a superstar.”
He may not have a choice. Benintendi, 24, posted a .366 on-base percentage, paired 16 home runs with 21 steals, earned Gold Glove finalist consideration and made a game-saving catch in Game 4 of the AL Championship Series.
Two more wins, and he’ll be a World Series champion, a happy outcome of player and team finding the perfect match.
“Through the entire process the Red Sox stood out to me as showing the most interest. And thank God they did,” he says. “Honestly, it takes a lot of falling into the right place.
“I think I played pretty well to be able to move up quickly, but it takes the right organization, the right guys to push you through the organization, and through the minors, pretty quickly. And I was fortunate to do that.”
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