Sox Week: Benintendi, Judge should provide Rookie of the Year race worth watching

  • Boston Red Sox's Andrew Benintendi runs after hitting a three-run homer against the Pittsburgh Pirates during the fifth inning of a baseball game at Fenway Park, Monday, April 3, 2017, in Boston. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola) Elise Amendola

  • AP AP

  • New York Yankees' Aaron Judge gestures as he runs the bases after hitting a 2-run home run during the seventh inning of a baseball game against the Baltimore Orioles Saturday, April 29, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II) Frank Franklin II

Monitor staff
Published: 5/6/2017 11:24:33 PM

Last year’s race for the AL Most Valuable Player Award gave baseball fans a good look at the future of the game. Mike Trout vs. Mookie Betts also stirred up the forever-relevant “Can the MVP come from the worst team?” debate. The league’s Cy Young race turned out to be pretty entertaining as well ... even if it needed a few angry Kate Upton tweets to really heat up.

And how about that Rookie of the Year race? Wasn’t that something? (Yeah, I barely remember Detroit’s Michael Fulmer beating out Yankees star Gary Sanchez either.)

At this pace, Chris Sale will likely represent the Boston Red Sox in the AL Cy Young race at year’s end and Betts is bound to at least be a part of the MVP discussion again. But in my opinion, the race that’s really going to be worth watching is AL Rookie of the Year.

A historic rivalry gets another chapter. Aaron Judge vs. Andrew Benintendi. New York vs. Boston. Big vs. Little. What more could you ask for?

I wrote last week about this sleepy old rivalry and how it feels irrelevant these days compared to the bad blood brewing between the Sox and Orioles. Maybe a hearty major award race between two of the most exciting young players in the division is exactly what it needs to get going again.

The physical differences between Judge and Benintendi are staggering. Judge, New York’s 25-year-old right fielder is listed at 6-foot-7, 282 pounds; Benintendi, Boston’s 22-year-old left fielder, is listed at 5-10, 170 pounds.

“(Giancarlo) Stanton is big, but this guy is big,” Cubs outfielder Jon Jay told ESPN recently when talking about the Yankees slugger. Stanton is 6-6, 246 pounds and it still feels like Judge would make him look like his little brother if they were standing side by side.

Benintendi is speedy and quick with a beautiful swing. He can hit for power, but he’s been spraying the ball all over the field this season. His size is shocking, too, but in a much different way. When you see him in person, you’re wondering how those massive biceps can fit on a Dustin Pedroia-size frame.

For all the physical differences between Benintendi and Judge, their backgrounds are actually quite similar.

Before they were first-round picks for their respective teams, both players were chosen by their hometown teams in the 31st round of the amateur draft. Judge, a northern California native, was picked by the Oakland Athletics in 2010 and Benintendi, from western Ohio, was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in 2013.

Both players decided to go to college instead. Judge attended Fresno State, where he played for three seasons before being drafted again, this time by the Yankees with the 32nd pick in 2013. Benintendi went off to Arkansas, winning the National Player of the Year Award in 2015 before the Sox picked him seventh overall later that year.

As most professional athletes do, both players shined in another sport in high school. Judge – who the Globe’s Nick Cafardo affectionately described as “Rob Gronkowski in a baseball uniform” – was a dominant receiver for Linden High School. As a senior, he caught 54 passes, 21 of those being touchdowns, for 969 yards. He received letters of interest from Notre Dame, UCLA, Michigan State and Stanford. And, of course, he cleaned the boards for his high school hoops team.

Benintendi was also a basketball star. Before finishing second on Ohio’s all-time career hit list, Benintendi broke the Madeira High School basketball team’s record with 1,753 career points. He averaged 25.5 points per game his senior season and dropped 41 points in a game on two separate occasions.

But everyone knew he was going to play baseball. His high school basketball coach, Jim Reynolds, told once that hoops were just “kind of a hobby for him.”

Similar stories, very different physical attributes and playing on opposing sides of the game’s greatest rivalry. Like I said, it will be worth watching.

Looking for leadership

Ever since the Dustin Pedroia-Manny Machado beef that I swore to myself I wouldn’t bring up this week, Red Sox Nation has been reeling for a number of reasons. A main concern prior to the season was who would fill the leadership role vacated by David Ortiz. I, like many others, confidently pointed to Pedroia.

When he was given the chance to take over that coveted role that it seems like he’d be perfect for, the 33-year-old veered out of the way. When all hell broke loose and Machado was calling for his teammate’s head, Pedroia delivered Matt Barnes on a silver platter.

Not necessarily the leadership qualities many were hoping he’d display.

Chris Sale to the rescue.

Just when you thought he couldn’t earn any more love and respect from the Boston faithful, he takes the very first opportunity he gets to throw a 98 mph fastball behind Machado on Tuesday, warning him and the rest of the Orioles not to mess with his team. Yes, his team.

When Sale was done delivering his message to Machado, he stood on the rubber and stared him down. It was one of the many moments this season where I’ve actually said to myself out loud, “Wow, he was born to play in Boston.”

At a time when it seemed like that leadership question had returned to the forefront, Sale stood on that mound and stared directly through the soul of Boston’s biggest enemy. He didn’t have enough hands to return all the high-five requests he received when he finally retreated to the dugout.

I’ll be the first to admit that I had my concerns about Sale when I found out Dave Dombrowski traded the farm for him last offseason. Obviously, it was clear that the guy could pitch, but the red flags remained. The jersey-clipping incident was concerning. The not-so-subtle war he staged with the owners of the Chicago White Sox over the 14-year-old son of one of his teammates didn’t go unnoticed.

But with the two incidents playing out in a very public arena, I did notice that not one current teammate, former teammate or even disgruntled ex-roommate came forward to speak against Sale’s character. No one ever called him a bad teammate or questioned his leadership. Sure, columnists across the country called his scissor-wielding incident a bit immature, but no one who actually knows the guy ever said a bad word about him.

Maybe that’s because, in that regard, there are no bad words to say.

Can he lead this team when he only plays every fifth day? That remains to be seen, but it’s hard not to like what Sale has already shown in his new colors.

(Michelle Berthiaume can be reached at 369-3338, or on Twitter @MonitorMichelle.)

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