One name that didn’t get nearly as much press as players such as Gregory Polanco or Oscar Taveras – mainly because he had not done much in the minor leagues until 2013 – was Mookie Betts of the Boston Red Sox. Sure, he was among Baseball America’s Top 100 prospects for 2014 at 75, but that’s a far cry from the top talents like Polanco, Carlos Correa, or Oscar Taveras.
The first thing that needs to be known about Mookie Betts is that he’s not a natural outfielder. He did play a bit in high school, but he was drafted and made his way through the minor leagues as a middle infielder. Of course, the problem with being a middle infielder in the Boston Red Sox system is that Dustin Pedroia is signed through 2021 and Xander Bogaerts, who temporarily has to play third due to team needs, should be one of the top shortstops in baseball for the next decade. Betts played 14 games at shortstop and 184 games at second base through his first three years in the minor leagues.
This year, though, the needs of the Red Sox took priority and Betts was shifted to the outfield for the majority of his games. It’s not like the move is one where he faced a steep learning curve or one where he didn’t necessarily possess the tools to do so. Betts was a multi-sport athlete in high school – he was even a champion bowler – and one of the selling points on him was that he had the arm of a shortstop but the range of what he is: a very good athlete.
Betts wasn’t necessarily highly regarded, at least in fantasy circles, because before last year, he hadn’t really done much to warrant the hype. His first full minor league season was 2012 at Low-A Lowell. In 251 at-bats at Lowell, Betts put up a slash line of .267/.352/.300. In those 251 at-bats, he had eight doubles, one triple and no home runs. He did do one thing that is fairly rare for a baseball player to do: he had more walks (32) than strikeouts (30). The lack of power could be explained because he is a diminutive guy at just 5-foot-9 and in the 160 lbs range. There was no question he had a good eye at the plate and hopefully it would be a matter of time before the power came around.
In 2013, Betts started in A-ball at Greenville. In 277 ABs at Greenville, Betts slashed .296/.418/.477 with 24 doubles, one triple, and eight home runs. The power was coming around, but his overall game kept improving as well; Betts had a 19-game hit streak at Greenville, getting on base 33 games in a row.
Betts finished 2013 at High-A Salem and continued his impressive run from earlier in the year. In 185 ABs, Betts slashed .341/.414/.551. Over the course of the season at both levels, Betts had 81 walks and 57 strikeouts, proving that his on base performance in 2012 was not a fluke. This was legitimately a player who had a great eye at the plate and made superb contact.
Betts began 2014 in Double-A and just kept hitting, slashing .355/.448/.551 with 35 walks and 20 strikeouts. After being promoted to Triple-A, he put up a line of .322/.425/.444 with 16 walks and 13 strikeouts. For his minor league career, Betts had 164 walks to just 120 strikeouts in 1,021 ABs. He was called up on June 28 from Pawtucket to get into the Red Sox lineup.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention one important fantasy factor that Betts has: speed. Over the course of his minor league career, Betts had 88 steals, being thrown out just 13 times in those 1021 ABs.
So now that Betts has been called up, what can fantasy owners expect?
First off, the Red Sox haven’t had a proficient centerfielder, at least at the plate, since Jacoby Ellsbury left. Grady Sizemore was released after not being able to find his form of old and Jackie Bradley Jr, Boston’s hopeful centerfielder of the future, has a .284 OBP and .306 SLG through his first 374 PAs in the MLB. In that sense, all Betts has to do to keep the job is not fall on his face. Literally, as long as he’s average, he’s going to get the reps in CF. That’s important when discussing the potential fantasy output of a rookie.
With his ability to make contact and take walks, combined with his speed, Betts makes a prototypical lead-off hitter. That is something the Red Sox are desperately lacking. By OPS, Sizemore was worse this year than Sam Fuld (who seems to get designated for assignment once a month) and Bradley has been worse than Peter Bourjos, whose days with the Cardinals seem to be numbered.
He’s obviously a must-add in AL-Only leagues but the mixed leagues I would add him in are dependent. I’m not picking him up just because he’s a rookie and the spinner is shining in the water. I’ll add him in leagues I need steals and runs. He should hit at the top of the order because no one else on their roster can. If he can steal with a good success rate, he’ll have lots of those, too.
Remember, though, this right-hitting prospect is still just 21-years-old. The list of 21-year-olds with significant impact at the plate in the history of baseball is fairly short. Keep this in mind: ONE player in the last decade has stolen 20 bases as a 21-year-old-or-younger rookie and that was Elvis Andrus in 2009.
If he can keep making contact and get on base, that should lead to steals. He won’t give much in the way of home runs or RBIs so it’s really runs, stolen bases, and batting average (even better if it’s an OBP league). Those needing power and production can skip him.
All the same, remember: he just needs to be a bit better than Jackie Bradley to stay in the lineup. It’s a low bar to pass so there is a good chance he stays on the Red Sox roster for the rest of the season.
*As always, thanks to Baseball Reference, FanGraphs, and Baseball Cube for their resources