2018 was a tremendous season for Andrew Benintendi.  The outfielder hit 16 home runs, stole 21 bases and slashed .290/.366/.465. His walk rate and strikeout rate were both better than league average, coming in at 10.7% and 16%, respectively. His wRC+ was 123 and he was worth 4.4 wins above replacement, according to FanGraphs. He was part of an utterly dominant Red Sox team that went 108-54 in the regular season and then cruised to a World Series title by going 11-3 in the postseason. To top it all off, that was just his age-23 season, suggesting that there was still time for him to soar to even greater heights.

Unfortunately, things have gone in the opposite direction since then, with his numbers slipping slightly from the heights of 2018. The following year, he hit 13 homers, stole 10 bases and slashed .266/.343/.431, for a wRC+ of 100 and 2.0 fWAR. The pandemic-shortened 2020 season was especially short for Benintendi, as a ribcage strain limited him to just 14 games. After a trade to the Royals, his 2021 season saw him bounce back to roughly his 2019 level of production. He hit 17 dingers, stole 8 bags and hit .276/.324/.442 for a wRC+ of 106 and 2.1 fWAR. That means that Benintendi has now played four full seasons, with three of them being solid campaigns of either 2.0 or 2.1 fWAR, as he also produced 2.0 fWAR in 2017.

Now Benintendi is entering his final year before reaching free agency, assuming the new CBA doesn’t drastically alter the previous service time structure. MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz projected he’ll earn a salary of $9.3M via arbitration. He’ll be playing for a Royals team with an uncertain short-term outlook, as their attempt to emerge out of rebuilding in 2021 came up short. They went 74-88, finishing 19 games behind the White Sox in the Central and just one game ahead of the basement-dwelling Twins. It was a relatively quiet pre-lockout offseason for them, as their biggest move so far was signing Taylor Clarke to a deal for less than $1M. They should be able to improve by virtue of their young players continuing to develop, but it’s unclear how aggressive they will be in what could be Benintendi’s final year with the team. That leaves a wide variety of potential outcomes for him in the coming year.

If the Royals want Benintendi to stick around as they open a new competitive window, they could always offer him an extension, as they did with Michael A. Taylor in September. Taylor was headed into free agency in about a month, but agreed to a two-year extension that will keep him in KC through 2023. However, Benintendi will likely require a lengthier commitment than that, given that he is more than three years younger than Taylor and comes with a higher ceiling.

Benintendi is currently slated to reach free agency as a 28-year-old, similar to Kyle Schwarber, who was predicted by MLBTR to get a contract of $70M over four years. They don’t produce in the same way, as Schwarber typically hits more but without much defensive contribution. However, they are still fairly analogous in terms of overall production. Over the past five years, Schwarber’s 10.8 fWAR in 593 games just barely eclipses Benintendi’s 10.1 fWAR in 585 games.

It would be something of a surprise for the Royals to give out an extension in that ballpark to Benintendi, as it would be fairly close to the four-year, $82M extension they gave to Salvador Perez a year ago. Having close to $40M committed to just two players would be a risky maneuver for a team that’s only rarely run a payroll over $100M.

There’s also the possibility that Benintendi’s job in the outfield gets filled internally in the next year. The club currently has an infield mix that includes Adalberto Mondesi, Nicky Lopez, Whit Merrifield, Carlos Santana and Hunter Dozier, with prospects Bobby Witt Jr. and Nick Pratto likely to debut in 2022. That crowded mix could lead to Merrifield and Dozier getting pushed to the outfield, alongside Taylor, Kyle Isbel and Edward Olivares. Considering all those options, perhaps they’d think it best to spend their money elsewhere.

With just one year of club control remaining, Benintendi will be a logical trade candidate if the Royals struggle to compete again in 2022. With the aforementioned glut of position players, the outfield could be covered by Taylor, Isbel, Merrifield, Dozier and Olivares after his departure. If Benintendi is having another season similar to what he did in 2017, 2019 and 2021, he should garner plenty of interest at the deadline, especially given that his affordable salary will be even less onerous by midseason. If he can go a notch higher and start to resemble his 2018 production, even better.

There’s also the chance that the Royals are able to take a step forward and get into the postseason mix, especially considering that the new CBA is expected to include an expanded postseason. A player like Benintendi could certainly be useful in a postseason chase, especially given his experience. If he were to stick on the Royals roster until the end of 2022 season, there’s a chance he could be a candidate for a qualifying offer, depending on how his season went. A one-year contract around $19M or so could perhaps be a bit high for a 2-win player, but Benintendi has shown he is capable of more. Considering he will be hitting free agency at a young age, he would likely be inclined to turn down the QO and try to secure himself a long-term deal. Of course, that’s dependent on a healthy and productive season in 2022.

However, there is also the great unknown of the next CBA. There’s a chance that the qualifying offer system is scrapped or somehow altered in a way that would change all of these calculations for Benintendi and the Royals. There’s also the chance that Benintendi’s free agency trajectory is altered by the new CBA. It was reported back in August that one of the proposals made by MLB involved altering the free agency rules to be based on age instead of service time. Under this proposed structure, players would reach free agency at age 29 1/2, as opposed to the previous system of accruing six years of service time. Benintendi was born July 6th, 1994, meaning he wouldn’t reach 29 1/2 years of age until 2024. (July 1st was proposed as the cutoff date, meaning Benintendi would just miss.) The MLBPA reportedly wanted nothing to do with this proposal, but the course of the negotiations is difficult to predict at the moment. In a prolonged standoff, resolution will likely require a bit of compromise on both sides. It’s impossible to know which items will wind up back on the table as part of a larger deal.

There are a great many unknowns for baseball in 2022. We don’t know when the lockout will end, if a full season will be played or what the rules will be. For Benintendi and the Royals, there are even more questions remaining to be answered.

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