June 30, 2014
Note: This Article was originally published on Saturday, June 28.
The Situation: With the Red Sox wallowing in fourth place in the American League East, and their outfield combining for a putrid .232/.306/.334 line through 80 games, the club had to do something to try and spark its moribund offense. On Saturday, we discovered what that something would be: a call-up for up stud prospect Mookie Betts in the midst of a breakout .345/.437/.520 season that includes 21 doubles, eight home runs, and 29 stolen bases.
Background: Boston’s fifth-round pick in 2011, Betts has breezed through the minor leagues in just three years. He was solid with short-season Lowell in 2012 as a 19-year-old, then tore the cover off the ball across both A-ball levels in 2013: After hitting .292 with 33 extra-base hits in 76 games at Low-A, Betts improved to hit .341 with 22 extra base hits in just 51 games at High-A Salem. He continued his torrid hitting pace at Double-A this season with a .355 average in 54 games before his recent promotion to Triple-A Pawtucket.
Scouting Report: At just 5-foot-9 and 160 pounds, Betts doesn’t look the part of an impact hitter, but he surprises onlookers with an ability to drive the ball to all fields with emphatic pop. Betts is a born hitter with the bat-to-ball skills necessary to hit .300 in the major leagues. He has a good approach at the plate and puts himself into counts where his uncanny strength allows him to drive doubles with consistency. He’ll also shoot some balls out of the yard on occasion.
In addition to his ability to hit and drive the ball, Betts is a plus runner with exceptional instincts on the bases. He gets tremendous jumps and can steal bases with ease. His combination of raw speed and instincts will enable him to swipe 30-plus bases a year in the big leagues.
All told, Betts’ offensive profile should be a productive one, complete with a high average, strong on-base percentage, plenty of doubles, 10-12 home runs, and plenty of stolen bases. His contributions at the plate and on the bases would make him one of the best offensive second baseman in the game today.
However, with Dustin Pedroia entrenched in Boston, Betts isn’t going to be playing the keystone on a daily basis, despite Pedroia’s struggles this year. Instead, Betts will be roaming the outfield, where he has played on only 29 occasions in the minor leagues (27 of them in center). I was impressed with how quickly Betts has taken to the outfield in a recent viewing, but he still has some rough edges that need polishing, a task he will undertake as the Red Sox try to climb back into the American League playoff picture.
Betts was a plus defender at second base with a strong arm, but it remains to be seen how he will handle the outfield on an everyday basis. He has the fast-twitch athleticism and speed to make it work in center field, and his arm strength will play in right field. There will be some bumps along the way in the field, but ultimately, I expect Betts to be an above-average outfield defender if that turns out to be his long-term home.
Whether in the outfield or at second base, Betts has transformed himself over the last year and a half, becoming one of the best prospects in the game and a player with a chance to be an all-star on multiple occasions.
Immediate Big-League Future: Given Betts’ incredible run of performance over the last two seasons, it’s difficult to envision a scenario where he doesn’t hit. He has a multitude of offensive gifts that should allow him to find success even as major-league pitchers challenge him and make adjustments to his game, and that should enable him to be an upgrade over whatever the Red Sox have been tossing out there on the outfield corners throughout the season’s first half. –Mark Anderson
Fantasy Impact: Betts is one of the more difficult prospects I've come across in the past several seasons to evaluate from a fantasy perspective. We know we can hit and we know he can run, but he loses some fantasy value moving to the outfield from second base, and we're not entirely sure how much pop he'll grow into. He's extra valuable in OBP leagues, of course, but in a standard 5x5 he's really a three-category contributor right now, with the promise of developing into something more. That's a nice player to have, but the Betts hype is out of control at the moment. As a point of comparison, I can't even tell you he's going to out-produce Rajai Davis for the rest of the season. Betts just isn't the fantasy savior many are making him out to be.
The majority of Betts' playing time in the short term will come in center or right field. Jackie Bradley Jr. continues to dazzle defensively and has looked better with the bat as of late, but he's still having a very poor season at the plate, and Shane Victorino remains on the disabled list with back soreness. Plus, Boston has a strong history of playing its top prospects once they're in the majors, so I'd expect to see Betts in the lineup every day. That means Betts should receive about a half-season of MLB plate appearances this year, which should let him approach 12-15 steals and 40-plus runs. He's unlikely to hit near the top of the lineup at first, but it wouldn't surprise me to see him there by August.
Betts is certainly relevant in all formats now, but he's a better MLB prospect than a fantasy one, and this isn't a "spend all your FAAB now" situation like we saw with Gregory Polanco or George Springer. If you need average and speed, then yes, bid aggressively on Betts. But if you're looking for power or RBI production, it's okay to play this one conservatively in redraft leagues. In keeper leagues, Betts should be of interest if 200-plus players are retained. In dynasty or AL-only leagues Betts is probably long gone, but if he's not, feel free to bid liberally with FAAB or to burn your top waiver priority. He's going to be good for a long time, even if I don't think he's ever going to be a no. 1 outfielder. –Ben Carsley
Mark Anderson is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Follow @ProspectMark