Hinsdale Native, Former Joliet Catholic Standout Joe Benson a Top Prospect for Twins
22-year-old outfielder looks forward to returning home to Minooka for short break, taste of Mom's home cooking.
Although "Minnesota" is emblazoned across his jersey, Joe Benson will not be rooting for the Vikings anytime soon.
Born in Hinsdale, the 22-year-old Joliet Catholic grad's parting words to me were "Bear Down!"
After a stellar high school career in baseball and football, the former catcher signed with the Minnesota Twins in the second round of the 2006 draft. He was the 64th pick overall. He passed up an offer to play running back for Purdue.
His current baseball teammates--Chris Parmalee and Tyler Robertson, selected by the Twins in 2006 in the first and third rounds--were immediately aware of Benson's football background. The three have spent much of their minor league careers together. They say he is a great guy who always seems to have a smile on his face, but that doesn't mean he takes the game lightly. He plays baseball hard, as if he were that running back looking for a defender to run over.
Benson is beginning his fifth season in the minor leagues. He spent most of his first summer in the Gulf Coast League, where the right-handed hitter had .260 average with five home runs and 28 runs batted in. He also had a brief stint with Beloit of the Midwest League.
Benson spent the next two years playing all three outfield positions for Beloit. As a former running back, he's got the speed to play center field. However, his power projections always indicated he could move to a corner outfield position. During the two seasons with Beloit, he hit .250 with nine home runs and 65 RBIs in 686 at-bats.
His '08 season was cut short by a back injury. His 2009 season also was cut short, when he played only 80 games for Hi-A Ft. Myers. His emotions got the better of him; he broke his hand in a rare display of anger. But he finished 2009 with a career-high .285 batting average.
Benson began the 2010 season with AA New Britain of the Eastern League. After a slow start, he was sent back to Ft. Myers. He responded by hitting .294 with four homers and 13 RBIs in 21 games. He finished the season in New Britain with 23 homers and 49 RBIs.
Benson's perseverance earned him the Sherry Robertson Award, given to the Minnesota minor league player of the year.
Jim Rantz, Twins senior director in the minor leagues, said, "It's really a double honor for Joe. He was demoted early and he picked himself up and put up some very good numbers. He led the entire organization in home runs (27)."
Previous winners of the award include such thorns in the White Sox' side as Jason Kubel, Joe Mauer and Michael Cuddyer.
Rantz said, "He's a great competitor and still has some of that football mentality in him. He still has a ways to go and sometimes he lets his emotions get the best of him, like last season when he broke his hand. He's a good kid. He fits in with his teammates and he is the scout's dream: He has the five tools."
Clearly, the Twins have a great deal of faith in Benson. They know he has speed, can throw and field, and can hit for batting average and for power.
For the past six weeks, Joe and six other Twins, along with prospects from the Reds, White Sox, Padres and Rays organizations, have been playing for the Peoria Saguaros in the Arizona Fall League. The AFL is considered the "Finishing School" for the top prospects in the game.
During the first five weeks of AFL play, Benson appeared in 15 games, hitting .224 with only one home run and four runs batted in. He had a five-game hitting streak (.333, 1 HR, 3 RBIs and 6 runs scored), but wasn't able to put a longer run together.
But his effort and enthusiasm didn't drop.
Saguaros manager Ted Simmons said, "He's done well, particularly against left-handers. He has nice tools. He is a plus runner, plus arm and plus power. So, if he can avoid the strikeout, he's got a chance to play up there, I think."
Benson went to Arizona hoping to reduce his strikeouts and continue the good things he did in New Britain. While he is confident in his skills, he is devoid of the egotism typical with so many pro athletes.
When asked how hard it was for him to give up football, his reply was simple: "I have been playing baseball since I was 4 and I only started playing football when I got to high school," Benson said. "I played (football) more to be with my friends to do something after school."
He's reluctant to talk about himself, but ask him about his younger sister, Victoria, and her horses, and he beams. He is genuinely happy and proud when talking about how the 17-year-old is attempting to break and train her first horse.
He knows that's her "field." Although he enjoys hanging around the horses at the family's Minooka home, he doesn't mess with them too much.
Benson looks forward to returning home and savoring his mom's cooking or anything his uncle will grill for him. After a short break, he will return to Florida, which he considers a second home.
It is clear that family is a big part of his life. Mom and dad (and maybe his grandfather) will accompany him to Minnesota for TwinsFest, Jan. 28-30, where he will receive the minor league player-of-the-year award.
Some other important dates in Joe's career are fast approaching.
Major League teams play the season with a 25-man roster. The big league team and the organization's top prospects make up the 40-man roster. By Nov. 19, all Major League teams must submit their final 40-man rosters.
Minor league players in Joe's situation who are left off the 40-man are eligible for the "Rule Five Draft," which gives other teams the opportunity to sign them. The Rule Five Draft takes place Dec. 9. Teams that draft players under Rule Five must keep those players on their big league roster for the entire season.
Benson will find out soon whether he'll become part of the Twins 40-man roster and whether he'll be attending spring training with the big league team to compete for a job.
If he continues at this pace, Joe likely will be barreling over a Sox catcher in the near future. Just what the Sox need: another thorn in their side.