Fifteen years after being the first overall pick in the 1996 draft, pitcher Kris Benson called it quits yesterday. He was a coulda been, shoulda been, big-time major leaguer before injuries wrecked his arm.
Injuries rained down on Benson throughout his career. He missed the 2001 season to Tommy John surgery, and then missed the 2007 and 2008 seasons for surgery for a torn rotator cuff. All told, Benson was placed on the DL eight times in his nine year career.
Benson pitched for the Pirates from 1999 to 2004, the New York Mets from 2004-2005, the Baltimore Orioles in 2006-2007, the Texas Rangers in 2009, and Arizona D-Backs in 2010. He won just two games in the show after his 32nd birthday.
He spent the most of his career with the Pirates, where he had a 4.26 ERA in 782 innings in parts of six seasons. Overall, Benson retired with a 70-75 record and a 4.42 ERA in 1,243-2/3 IP compiled over 206 games (200 starts).
His final career ERA+ was 100, noted Alex Remington of Big League Stew, meaning he was better than half his peers and worse than the other half over the course of his career. In other words, he was completely and utterly average.
Kristin James Benson was born November 7, 1974, in Superior, Wisconsin. He was born to baseball nut parents whose kids names all started with "K," as in strikeout.
Benson played at Sprayberry HS in Marietta, Georgia with future All-Star Marlon Byrd. He was one of two players in school history to make the varsity as a freshman, and finished his senior year with a 0.60 ERA and a mantle full of national awards. Even so, Benson wasn't drafted as a prep star.
So hey, he went to powerhouse Clemson University from 1993 to 1996 instead. His teammate was Billy Koch, who played with him in the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta where the USA won bronze. His nickname was "Messiah."
Benson went 14-2 with a 2.02 ERA during his junior year, including the national playoffs. He K'ed 204 in 156 innings, leading the Atlantic Coast Conference in wins and strikeouts while second in ERA. His two losses were during the College World Series even though he struck out 26 hitters; most attributed his lack of success to a tired arm, as he led the nation in innings pitched.
The honors kept coming: he won the Baseball America Player of the Year, ACC Player of the Year, and the ACC Male Athlete of the Year (the only other ACC baseball player to win it was B.J. Surhoff of UNC and the Brewers/O's). Benson also won the Rotary Smith Award, Collegiate Baseball Player of the Year, the Dick Howser Trophy and ABCA Player of the Year. Needless to say, Benson was first-team All-American.
In 2003 he was named to the ACC's 50-Year Anniversary baseball team, and was inducted into the Clemson Hall of Fame and the South Carolina Amateur Hall of Fame in 2005.
Benson was the first overall pick of the 1996 draft. The Pittsburgh Pirates made him a well-to-do young man when they signed him for a $2M bonus. Baseball America named Benson the #1 prospect in Pittsburgh's system before he played a game in the minors, and he rose like a rocket, spending just two years in the bushes.
He split his first year between the Lynchburg Hillcats (5-2, 2.58 ERA, 72 K in in 59-1/3 IP) and the Carolina Mudcats (3-5, 4.98 ERA, 66 K in 68-2/3 IP). Baseball America rated him the #2 prospect in the Carolina League between top dog Russ Branyan of Kinston and the league MVP, Lynchburg's Aramis Ramirez; BA named him the #6 prospect in Carolina's Southern League.
In 1998 at AAA Nashville, the numbers weren't so pretty. Benson was 8-10 with a 5.37 ERA. But BA wrote that he had the best breaking pitch in the Pacific Coast League, and considered him to be the Pirates #3 prospect behind Chad Hermansen and Warren Morris.
Although thought to be not-quite-ready-for-prime-time, Benson earned a spot in the '99 rotation after a camp injury to Jose Silva. On April 9th, Benson made his MLB debut, beating the Chicago Cubs (his first strikeout victim was Sammy Sosa). He become the second #1 overall pick to win his opening game, following David Clyde who had turned the trick in 1973.
Benson had a rock solid frosh season, going 11-14 with a 4.07 ERA, finishing 4th in the NL Rookie of the Year Award race. He also became a married man, hitching up with Anna, who he had met while pitching in Nashville; no wonder he was distracted there.
The young righty followed with what would be his best season, going 10-12 with a 3.85 ERA in 217-2/3 IP. He posted career highs in earned run average, strikeouts (184), innings pitched, and games pitched (32); he also broke the record for most strikeouts in Pirates history for a right handed pitcher. And as an aside for the record books, Benson started the last game at Three Rivers Stadium. In March, Pittsburgh signed Benson to a 4-year, $13.8M deal.
But then it began. In what would become a recurring theme, the Bensons stirred a bit of controversy when Kris and Anna were interviewed in Penthouse Magazine and spilled some steamy bedroom beans.
Quickly following what was to become another recurring theme, injury. Benson badly sprained his right elbow, requiring ligament transplant, aka Tommy John, surgery in May and missed the entire 2001 campaign.
After successful rehab stints, Benson's 2002 return to the Buccos wasn't so successful, at least at the start. He began 0-4 with a 7.79 ERA in 8 starts, but then was 9-2 with a 3.57 ERA in his last 17 starts to finish 9-6, with a 4.70 ERA. His second half surge gave the Pirates confidence that he was fully recovered.
But he struggled with tendinitis in his right shoulder, which ended his season in mid-July. He went 5-9 with a 4.97 ERA in 2003. With the contract ending, Anna, and his always aching arm, Benson was primed for a move to another town.
Benson started the 2004 season 8-8 with a 4.22 ERA. Rumors filled the air about a deadline deal; the hottest regarded a trade for Ryan Howard that the trigger was never pulled on. Some sources say Phil's GM Ed Wade got cold feet; others claim that the Bucco FO thought Pirate prospect Brad Eldred and Howard had basically the same upside, and that two first basemen were one too many.
At any rate, on July 30, Benson was traded with Jeff Keppinger to the New York Mets for Jose Bautista, Ty Wigginton and Matt Peterson.
He pitched OK through 2006. He stayed with the Mets for 2004-05, long enough to sign a three-year, $22.5M contract, before being dealt (allegedly because of another Anna-generated spat) to the O's for John Maine and Jorge Julio in 2006.
Then February of 2007, Kris was diagnosed with a torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder. Upon his return in 2008, he signed with the Phils, then the Rangers a year later, and the D-Backs in 2010. In those three years, he got into 11 games for 36-1/3 innings.
His arm never recovered from the 2007 surgery, and he hung up the spikes rather than continue on the hamster wheel of rehab.
But outside of having never reached his potential because of a bad arm, we wouldn't feel too badly for Kris Benson. According to Baseball Reference, he earned nearly $39M in his career.
A marketing major at Clemson, Benson also is working to form his own business management company. He doesn't have cash flow or financial concerns now because he had some of the Met money deferred, so it's still rolling in.
And hey, for all the yap about Anna, Benson has a family of four kids and is involved in charity work. As a player, he's won the Pirates' Roberto Clemente Award, along with the Thurman Munson Award, the Joan Payson Award, and the New Jersey Sports Writers Humanitarian of the Year Award for his community efforts.
Anna and Kris Benson founded the non-profit organization Benson's Battalion after 9/11, which has been recognized by Congress for its support of public safety departments' needs. The couple have also made tidy contributions to Clemson University, as well as to the Mets and Orioles charitable foundations while Benson played there.
So hey, for all the ooh-la-la's and voyeurism involved in Kris and Anna's stops, the couple are out of the limelight now and getting on with their lives' work, whatever that may end up being. We wish them well, and hope that Kris' arm holds up well enough so that he can at least enjoy a toss with his kids, even if his slider days are done.