CLEVELAND — It was June 9, 2016, that Will Benson began his professional baseball journey when Cleveland selected him in the first round of the MLB Draft. The almost 18-year-old fresh out of high school was convinced he’d be on the fast track to the big leagues — maybe within the next year.
Instead, he had to wait an additional five years for his moment to come.
“Patience had to kick in quick,” Benson said.
That patience survived many trying times for Benson, whose slow progression through the Minor League system finally came to an end Monday night, when he made his Major League debut and scored the winning run in the Guardians' 6-5, 11-inning victory over the D-backs.
Benson replaced Franmil Reyes in in the ninth inning, batting seventh and playing right field. He came up to the plate in the 10th with two outs and a chance to walk it off, but he grounded out to end the inning.
However, that meant he started the bottom of the 11th as the automatic runner, and after moving to third base on Austin Hedges' sac bunt, he scored on Amed Rosario's two-out walk-off single, clapping and celebrating as he crossed the plate.
He had received the callup just 24 hours before walking into Progressive Field after his game with Triple-A Columbus in Louisville.
“Funny story,” Benson said. “I was in Taco Bell [when I got the call] because my girl wanted Taco Bell. … Gotta make her happy, you know.”
Aside from securing a postgame meal, the biggest benefit to Benson being at Taco Bell in that moment was that it was just down the street from the hotel his family was staying at to watch him play. So, as soon as he hung up the phone, he was able to take a short drive and deliver the news in person.
“We literally went crazy in valet, just jumping around, screaming,” Benson said. “And it was just such an amazing feeling.”
We have made some moves, and they are these:
+ Selected the contract of OF Will Benson from Triple-A Columbus
– Optioned OF Alex Call to Triple-A Columbus
– Transferred LHP Anthony Gose to the 60-Day Injured List#ForTheLand pic.twitter.com/nTvgnSAIjW
This was the moment Benson had been waiting for. Not only was he about to reach the big leagues, but he was celebrating with the people who had been his backbone through what became a grueling process.
Benson had a high bar set for him out of high school, considering he was the 14th overall pick in the 2016 MLB Draft. If you scroll through his transactions page, you won’t see any stints on the injured list, yet his progression through the Minors wasn’t overwhelmingly quick. His average never eclipsed .240 in any of his first five professional seasons, he lost the 2020 season due to the pandemic and he hasn’t been in Cleveland’s Top 30 Prospects list (via MLB Pipeline) since 2019, when he ranked 25th.
When it got tough, he leaned on his family.
“They’re there when it was hard,” Benson said. “They’re there when it was great, times when I wanted to let it all go, times when I wanted to scream off the top of a mountain. You know what I mean?”
But this year, Benson made a change.
“I finally learned to play the game,” he said.
What was put so simply required a lot of effort. Although his strikeout numbers were still relatively high, he’s shown that he’s making more (and better) contact on pitches in the zone. Previously, he’d swing through a lot of hittable fastballs.
“I talked to [Guardians field coordinator John McDonald],” Benson said. “He just said, ‘Hey man, the best power hitters are hitters first.’ And I just went back and just truly watched video to try to dissect and analyze. I studied Barry Bonds. I studied [Mike] Trout.
“I think that was the biggest adjustment, just understanding when to look for stuff, when to just trust your ability to hit, looking at situations, it’s a game within the game, and that’s what all the greats do.”
The adjustments certainly provided results. He’s hit .278 with a .948 OPS, 20 doubles, three triples, 17 homers, 45 RBIs and 75 walks in 89 Triple-A games.
“I don't think anybody has ever questioned his work ethic or him as a person,” Guardians manager Terry Francona said. “We knew when we drafted him that we drafted an A+ kid. … Obviously I hope he helps us win. That's why he's here.”
Benson’s presence was needed just in case Josh Naylor (right ankle soreness) or Owen Miller (right forearm soreness) wouldn’t be ready to get back in the lineup Monday. While Benson's only played three Minor League games at first (as recently as Saturday), he’s ready for the challenge.
“Thankfully I played it when I was a little bit younger in high school,” Benson said. “So it wasn't completely out of the ordinary.”
Maybe Benson thought this moment would come in 2017, but it only took him one Major League game to know that it was well worth the wait.