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February 7, 2013

Prospect Profile

Joe Benson

by Hudson Belinsky

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Blessed with obnoxiously loud tools, Twins outfielder Joe Benson has found his way onto Baseball Prospectus’s Twins rankings on multiple occasions. To start, here are the strength and weakness write-ups on Benson from each of his appearances on Kevin Goldstein’s top 10 lists.

Pre-2008:

The Good: On a pure tools level, Benson compares with anyone in the system. He has plus raw power and was beginning to show some signs of tapping into it during the last few weeks of the season. He's also an above-average runner with solid range in center field and good acceleration on the base paths. Despite his overall struggles, he showed a patient approach at the plate as he adjusted to the leadoff role.

The Bad: Benson is still raw in many aspects of the game. He has both a long swing and a hitch in his swing mechanics that combine to limit his ability to make contact. He needs to improve his reads and routes in the outfield, as well as his base-stealing ability. 

Pre-2010:

The Good: On tools alone, Benson ranks with nearly any outfielder in a system rich with them. He has above-average raw power, plus-plus speed, covers more ground in center field than Ben Revere, and his arm also rates as plus. A former football star in high school, he brings that gridiron mentality to every plate appearance while maintaining good plate discipline.

The Bad: The biggest questions about Benson focus on his bat, as there are plenty of holes in his swing and he's prone to chasing bad pitches against right-handers. Injuries have limited him to just 151 games over the last two seasons, with 2009's malady being a broken hand suffered when he lost a fight with a dugout wall.*

*More on this later.

Pre-2011:

The Good: Some scouts feel that Benson's raw tools eclipse those even of Hicks. He has plus-plus raw power and well above-average speed to go with good defensive skills and a strong arm. He works the count well and waits for pitches to drive. A football star in high school, he brings a gridiron mentality to the game, with a max-effort style of play.

The Bad: The biggest question concerning Benson is just how much he will hit. He can get inconsistent mechanically as well as quite power-hungry, leading to a long, loopy swing that leaves him a highly streaky hitter. He needs to improve his jumps and routes in order to remain in the middle pasture.

Pre-2012:

The Good: Benson has always had tools. He has above-average raw power, and enough speed to generate double-digit stolen-base totals. He's a good outfielder who can handle center field, and his arm is a weapon; he's amassed 24 outfield assists in less than 200 outfield games at Double-A. He's a patient hitter who knows how to slow the game down and work the count to his advantage.

The Bad: Benson is a career .265 hitter in the minors with a high strikeout rate, and that might be his peak in the big leagues. His refined swing is still a bit stiff and mechanical. He'll need to walk, run, and hit for power throughout his career to make up for the number of outs he'll make.

Here’s a basic summary of what you just read (or skipped over): Benson has outstanding tools (raw power, above-average to plus runner, strong arm, can play center field), but there are questions about his hitting ability, and he previously split his athletic commitment between baseball and football. All the while, Benson inched closer and closer to his ceiling, and he appeared in 21 games for the Twins in 2011. Last spring, he had a chance to make the big-league club out of Spring Training.

Unfortunately, that didn’t go very well.

“Ahhh Mr. Benson. He looked like an absolute stud in ML spring training,” one scout said in an email. (‘Ooh’ and ‘ahh’ are common onomatopoeias used in discussions about Mr. Benson.) In spring training, he was consistently making hard contact and unleashing his plus raw power. In center field, he made a scout salivate: “tons of range, fearless, above average arm.” Still, there were doubts about his ability to barrel quality off-speed stuff, and he struggled to drive the ball to the opposite field, allowing opposing pitchers to pound the ball on the outer half. The concerns were legitimate, but they might not have mattered; the rest of the tools were strong enough for Benson to become a first-division player. If he had stayed healthy, 2012 could have been a breakout year.

He didn’t, and it wasn’t.

Benson got off to a slow start at Triple-A, which prompted a demotion to Double-A.* In late May, he had hamate-bone surgery and didn’t return to the field until mid July. Then, in late August, Benson went under the knife again, this time requiring microfracture surgery on his left knee. He never got going in 2012, and finished the year with a .202/.288/.336 triple-slash line over 312 plate appearances, as the wrist and knee injuries turned his anticipated breakout campaign into a lost season.

*There are rumors that Benson was unhappy about not making the team out of camp, and even more dissatisfied about having to play right field in Double-A, where fellow top prospect Aaron Hicks occupied center field. Benson previously received high praise for his makeup, and this is the first time scouts questioned it.

While he has battled myriad health concerns, Benson thinks the term “injury-prone” is unfair.

“I don’t feel I’m injury-prone. You know, I never really missed too much time with nagging muscle injuries or arm problems or soreness or anything like that during the season. Both of my broken hands—one in the Florida State League that was from punching a pole, so I did that to myself—you know the hook of the hamate, that could happen on any baseball swing on anybody at any given time. You see every year a couple guys go down.”

Benson also downplayed the severity of his knee ailments.

“The knee thing, I had a meniscus surgery, and I was back after four or five weeks. … That was just a quick scope, and then this [most recent issue] was completely different, but a pretty common injury. It was just removing a loose body in my knee. They did the microfracture because it was at the end of the year and I had time to heal. They felt in the long run it’d be better.”

Benson is still a legitimate prospect, but his baseball skills are limited. In the outfield, he doesn’t always take the best routes to the ball, instead relying on his speed to compensate for his mistakes. Meanwhile, his aggressiveness on both sides of the ball scares some scouts away: “If I was flanking him, I’d be afraid that he’d run into me,” one evaluator said.

At the plate Benson, strikes out a lot and struggles to track breaking balls into his bat. His doubters wonder if he will ever develop a sufficiently polished approach to succeed against quality pitchers.

This year, Benson did not rank among Jason Parkstop Twins prospects, but he did find a spot in the section of the rankings devoted to Factors on the Farm. Here’s what the professor had to say:

“A very disappointing 2012 season for Benson has crushed his once lofty prospect status, but the multi-tooled outfielder could still be in the mix for a major league opportunity at some point during the season. The bat failed him at all stops last year, but if he can regain his confidence and stay healthy, he has the baseball skills to contribute at the highest level.”

The uncertainties in Minnesota’s outfield give Benson a chance. The soon-to-be 25-year-old has been working all offseason, and he says that, from a health standpoint, he is back to 100 percent. Some evaluators now see Benson as little more than a quality fourth outfielder. His goal in 2013 will be to surprise his doubters and establish a higher ceiling.

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