Sacramento River Cats righthander Michael Benacka got a very late start on his career in affiliated baseball, as he was signed out of independent ball in 2008 at age 26. He's done nothing but dominate at three levels in the Oakland organization since then, and has been one of the best relievers for the River Cats this year.
From a traditional scouting perspective, Benacka has two strikes against him: He's always been way old for his levels, and he lacks plus velocity. He's known for having one of the best changeups in the minors and having little else in the way of "stuff" to go with it.
Benacka, who recently turned 28, has allowed just 10 homers in 143 innings in the Oakland system, including just four in 51 Triple-A frames. He's also struck out a whopping 176 batters in that time, good for 11.08 K/9. He's struck out 32% of the batters he's faced in his Triple-A career, so that great changeup clearly can get swings and misses.
Statistically speaking, whether Benacka will succeed in the majors will depend on whether he can throw enough strikes. He's been plagued by walks since independent ball (he issued 52 free passes in 67 1/3 Frontier League innings), and he has walk rates of 3.8 BB/9 or higher at every level, rising from 3.8 in High-A to 4.4 in Double-A to 5.3 in Triple-A.
Benacka isn't a groundball pitcher, but he's often credited with having deception in his delivery, which makes him somewhat tough to square up. That helps explain his paltry BABIP and HR/FB rates: while posting good numbers there is usually an indicator of good luck more than skill, Benacka may really be able to skew those numbers in his favor. His career BABIP is .285 and his HR/FB rate is 5.6%.
Benacka presents something of a dilemma. He doesn't have traditional "plus stuff," with the great changeup and little else, and Dallas Braden (among others) has shown that that sort of arsenal can lead to much lower strikeout numbers in the majors than the PCL. Unlike Braden, Benacka clearly doesn't have plus command, so he needs to retain most of his strikeout ability to be a valuable pitcher.
Benacka is 28, but it makes sense that he isn't being rushed to the majors: there are real concerns as to whether he'll be viable there. Still, he's succeeded at every level, and while Braden couldn't get whiffs with a mid-80's fastball and great changeup, Trevor Hoffman sure could, so you can't automatically write Benacka off because of what he throws. It's worked up to this point, and I'd like to see if he can keep the swings-and-misses going in Oakland once rosters expand.