Friday, March 14, 2014

#647 - Juan Beniquez

Yes, this guy used to be a shortstop. And on his rookie card he strikes a very shortstop-y pose in front of some spring training batting practice. Back then Juan Beniquez was being groomed as the heir apparent to Luis Aparicio, but by the time of this card’s arrival the switch had been made to the outfield. Seeds of that change had already been sown in a ’73 spent exclusively in Triple A where Juan had a nice season offensively, leading his league in hitting and recording 25 stolen bases. Defensively most of his time was spent in center field after some rough recent numbers at his listed position – see cartoon – as well as short runs at second and third. The shift worked and would help contribute to a nice long career for Juan, though position-wise his timing wasn’t too hot and most of that time would be spent elsewhere.

Juan Beniquez was signed by Boston out of a local Puerto Rican team in ’68, when he was 18. In A ball his first season he put up some good offensive and defensive numbers while playing exclusively at short, which would be his position the next few years as well. He then split ’70 between that level and Double A, topping out with a combined 43 stolen bases in the minors. In ’71 he kept his offense rocking with a big triples number and 30 steals in Triple A before his successful debut in Boston late that season. In ’72 he began the season in Triple A and after hitting nearly .300 with 20 steals in half a season he was pulled up to the Sox where he did some light duty while spelling Little Looie at short. After moving to the outfield in ’73 Juan returned to Boston full-time in ’74 where he hit .267 with 19 stolen bases while sharing time in center with Rick Miller. While he did well in that role and would seem to have had a future there, he was quickly trumped the next season when the arrival of all-everything rookie Fred Lynn pushed Juan into a reserve role that included time at the outfield corners, DH, and even third base. He hit .291 in that role and then worked regularly in the post-season after an injury laid other rookie phenom Jim Rice incapacitated. But the presence of those two plus other young outfielders Dwight Evans, Miller, and Bernie Carbo meant that playing time would be scarce for Juan, so following the season he went to Texas in the deal that made Fergie Jenkins a Red Sox.

With the Rangers the next three seasons Beniquez became the regular guy in center where he would supply very capable defense and won a Gold Glove in ’77. But his offense was sort of unspectacular with a .261 average, a high of 50 RBI’s, and middling stolen base numbers. After the ’78 season he was involved in another trade with a (future) big deal pitcher, this time joining Dave Righetti in going to the Yankees in a populated swap. With NY Juan suffered through a season of back-up work in which he hit .254 in only 142 at bats. Then it was on the road again, this time to Seattle in the deal that brought another soon-to-be disappointed Yankee outfielder to NY in Ruppert Jones. Juan’s numbers weren’t any better with the Mariners - .228 in 237 at bats – in another short stay. After the season he departed for California as a free agent.

Beniquez would enjoy his most successful MLB time with the Angels, though it sure didn’t start off that way. In the strike year of ’81 he bottomed out offensively with a .181 average in just 166 at bats. He was then moved to the outfield corners which seemed to contribute to an offensive revival as his average jumped to .265, his highest since ’77. Then in ’83 he surprised probably everyone by starting a three-year run of hitting over .300 while getting plenty of work as the California fourth outfielder. He topped out with a .336 in ’84 which got him some MVP votes, and in ’85 expanded his field work to first base. Then, in another example of bad timing, he left Anaheim for Baltimore as a free agent where in his one season he reprised his role as a fourth outfielder while hitting an even .300. He then went to Kansas City for a couple minor leaguers after that season and finished things up as a reserve outfielder and pinch hitter in ’88 with Toronto, hitting .293. So 17 years in, Juan finished with a .274 average with 79 homers, 476 RBI’s, and over 100 stolen bases. In the post-season he hit .200 with a couple RBI’s in his eight games.

Juan gets some star bullet props for his glove and hitting work, but that cartoon is a killer. Those couple games were instrumental in that shift to the outfield.

Beniquez had played winter ball back in his native PR during his whole stateside career and for a bit thereafter, where he also did some coaching and managing. Outside of an ’89 spent in the Senior League, though, there is no specific information out there regarding what he did professionally after baseball. That’s almost always the case with the Latin guys.

So these two faced each other in that immortal ’75 Series:

1. Beniquez and Ellis Valentine ’83 Angels;
2. Valentine and George Foster ’82 Mets.  

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