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Column: Fans should be excited about Andrew Benintendi, but the Chicago White Sox need much more to return to form in 2023

When the Chicago White Sox handed Luis Robert a six-year, $50 million contract — with options through 2027 — three years ago this week, general manager Rick Hahn said the organization “put our money where our mouth is in terms of our level of excitement” about the rookie center fielder.

The 22-year-old Robert had yet to play in a major-league game, but the commitment by the Sox suggested he soon would be the centerpiece of a contending team for the rest of the decade.

In truth, putting their money where their mouth is never has been the White Sox way. Other than the seven-year extension slugger Frank Thomas signed after the 1997 season, which amounted to about $85 million after the option years, they’ve been one of the more conservative teams when it comes to dishing out big contracts.

But the offseason after the 2019 season suggested the times were changing. Not only did Robert get paid like a perennial All-Star in the making, but the Sox also signed catcher Yasmani Grandal to a four-year, $73 million deal, the biggest free-agent contract in franchise history.

Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf looked like he was ready to go toe to toe with big-market owners so the Sox could become an annual championship contender in his golden years.

That, of course, hasn’t happened.

Robert has shown glimpses of why he’s considered a potential superstar, but injuries limited him to 166 combined games the last two seasons. Grandal has hit .222 in three seasons with the Sox and finished with a career-low .570 OPS in an injury-plagued 2022. His contract is now unloadable in its final season.

Hahn went into this offseason acknowledging fan discontent, knowing the Sox had to make at least one big move — via trade or free agency — to try to appease the not-so-silent majority.

He finally got the man he wanted in left-handed-hitting Andrew Benintendi, signing the free-agent outfielder to a five-year, $75 million deal.

Benintendi was introduced Wednesday at a news conference on the South Side and soon will join Robert, Grandal and the rest of the holdovers at spring training in Glendale, Ariz. It could be the start of a rebound year, but with so many players needing to rebound, it’s anyone’s guess as to whether Benintendi can be the missing piece of the puzzle.

Sox fans should be optimistic about Benintendi’s arrival, but the letdown from the empty promises of the Grandal signing naturally has tempered some fans’ enthusiasm.

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This team desperately needs power after tying for 22nd last year with 149 home runs, then losing first baseman José Abreu to free agency. On paper Benintendi isn’t an upgrade in that department with only five home runs in 2022 with the Kansas City Royals and New York Yankees. His OPS against left-handers was .675 with one homer in 134 at-bats.

Perhaps Sox Park will be more conducive to his hitting, but don’t forget Yankee Stadium is a great place for left-handed hitters, and Benintendi homered once in 52 at-bats there after arriving in a deadline deal from the Royals.

“Andrew diversifies the ways this lineup is capable of beating you on a given day,” Hahn said Tuesday on a Zoom call with reporters. “Not just going to be power-based, but I think for a variety of reasons going forward, we’re going to produce a little more from a power output standpoint from the guys who have done that in the past.”

That seemingly points to Grandal and shortstop Tim Anderson, who hit a combined 40 home runs in 2021 and only 11 last year. Hahn also could mean third baseman Yoán Moncada, but it’s wishful thinking to believe he’ll get back to the 25-homer player he was in 2019.

Benintendi pointed out Wednesday that he’s 5-foot-9, 175 pounds, and though the ballpark should help, he isn’t going to be a 30-homer guy.

“I help the team the most when I get on base and let guys drive me in,” he said. “So that’s what I’m really going for.”

Sox fans probably expect a bit more from a $75 million player, but so be it. At least he’s honest about his limitations.

Benintendi should get on base and provide much-needed defense in left field while Andrew Vaughn moves to first and Eloy Jiménez becomes the primary designated hitter. Manager Pedro Grifol said the Sox have told Jiménez he’ll be playing some right field — a scary thought for Sox fans, who can expect to worry that Jiménez might crash into Robert and injure one or both of them.

Avoiding injuries will be a priority for the Sox, who seemingly have enough talent to compete with the top American League teams when everyone is on the field. As stats geek Jay Cuda pointed out on Twitter, the Sox have had 15 hamstring-related injured list stints over the last two seasons, equaling the total from the previous nine seasons (2012-20).

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At least there will be no more nonsense from the manager asking players not to run full speed. That was one of the things that bothered Sox fans most about Tony La Russa, even if La Russa was only conveying the message given to him from team physicians.

Hahn still has work to do, not only in improving the lineup, but also in building excitement among Sox fans. Those “In Hahn We Trust” T-shirts have faded the last couple years. The shortsighted decision not to hold SoxFest wasn’t Hahn’s, but without players coming to town this month to get people on board for 2023, the onus is on the front office and Grifol to do all the heavy lifting until spring training.

Grifol appeared at Benintendi’s news conference but otherwise has been out of sight and mostly out of mind. No big deal, perhaps. But how much goodwill did Joe Maddon bring Cubs fans at the 2015 Cubs Convention?

The Sox missed out on an opportunity to showcase their new manager and outfielder. Maybe someday they’ll explain why.

Hahn’s relatively quiet offseason is almost over, and so far he has held true to his belief that the Sox didn’t need a major overhaul to correct their deficiencies. He held on to closer Liam Hendriks, their best trade piece, improved the outfield and added starting pitcher Mike Clevinger to replace Johnny Cueto, the savior of the 2022 staff.

It wasn’t a typical Hahn winter, but there’s still time to fill the hole at second base, upgrade the bench and add another bullpen arm. Garrett Crochet’s return should improve the bullpen, though it might make sense to delay his debut until a few weeks into the season to ensure he doesn’t hit an innings limit by early or mid-September.

Benintendi said he’s excited to be a part of an organization in which “the talent’s insane.” And as the big, new piece of the Sox puzzle, the pressure will be on him to help bring the Sox back to October.

It’s a challenge he seems ready for, which is one reason Sox fans should give him the benefit of the doubt.


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