For anyone who follows prospects closely, one of the biggest stories of the 2014 season has been the emergence of Mookie Betts. The Red Sox second base prospect was hardly a no-name entering the season, but his scorching hot start to the season has left scouts and fans alike wondering if his arrival to the majors will be sooner than originally expected, and if so, where he will play.
A recent slump leaves Betts hitting .375/.446/.575 on the season, but the most impressive numbers are the ones around the strike zone. Betts has drawn 22 walks in 39 games, a strong rate, but he's stuck out just 13 times, an incredibly low number given his frequency for deep counts and his burst in power this season. While fans tend to see gaudy batting average numbers and get irrationally excited, a walk-to-strikeout ratio that far over one is worth getting excited about, and one coming from a 21-year-old in his first taste of Double-A borders on "adolescent with a Playboy" excited.
Betts is not a .375 hitter, mainly because no one is a .375 hitter. In order to hit for an average that high, some fortunate luck is involved. His BABIP of .386 on the season is unsustainable, though his propensity for hitting line drives should allow it to remain higher than league average. That's what makes .300 hitters, which Betts has the chance to be in the major leagues.
Betts is also a fantastic defender at second base, but his emergence has call into play the obvious question - where will he play in Boston? Dustin Pedroia, the Red Sox current second baseman and emotional leader, isn't going anywhere, and Betts doesn't profile well at short stop, where Xander Bogaerts has been given the keys to the infield. Perhaps as a solution, the Red Sox used Betts in center field over the weekend.
Naturally, the prospect-following community went nuts. What does this mean? Are the Red Sox getting ready to call him up? Are they giving up on Jackie Bradley, Jr.? And, of course, repeated abhorrent versions of Betts-related fantasy inquiries.
Despite a status that was slow to gain steam within the prospect world, it looks like Betts is going to be an everyday major leaguer, with a ceiling that could be even higher if his power burst is for real. He runs well, offers defensive value at second base (should he end up with a different organization and get to play there), has a natural knack for hitting, and most importantly, controls the strike zone exceptionally well. This last trait allows his other offensive tools to play up, including his power, but putting him in hitter's counts and getting good pitches to hit. Betts is going to be a productive major leaguer, with his ceiling still yet to be determined.
The question now is where and when, and it's a question that even the Red Sox can't answer just yet.
The move to the outfield does not signal anything other than that they are choosing to give themselves options. Much like the Cubs did this spring with Javier Baez, the Red Sox are simply giving themselves options and flexibility for their future. There may come a time when Betts needs to play some second base. He may also remain blocked, assuming Pedroia remains healthy. Bradley could also start hitting anyday now and block Betts in center field just as well as Pedroia has at the keystone.
The more things that Betts (or any other player for that matter) can do, the more options the Red Sox have when it comes to getting him in the lineup. Bogaerts' ability to play both short stop and third base was a major reason why the Red Sox were able to keep him on their postseason roster this year. While the prospect world perseverated over which position he would play long-term, the Red Sox allowed him to work at both, increased his short-term value for their playoff run while also giving him long-term experience.
The Red Sox are doing the same thing with Betts right now. Pedroia has had injury issues and having a player like Betts waiting in the wings is an incredible luxury. Bradley has struggled to hit in the majors, but his track record suggests that he'll turn it around. Right now, there simply isn't a spot for Betts, but the more things he can do and the more positions he can play, the better the chance they can find one for him down the road.
Which brings us to our last point of emphasis. Betts is not on the cusp of the major leagues, and his tryout in center field does not suggest that. For as well as he is hitting this season, Betts is still a 21-year-old with just 31 games in the upper minors to his credit. If his ceiling really is that of an impact player, the Red Sox would be foolish to call him up now just to jump start a flounderng offense. With the Eastern League clearly providing little challenge for him, a promotion to Triple-A could be in store for Betts within the month, but a jump straight to the American League East would be daunting and unnecessary.
What his hot start has done for Betts is re-affirm that his breakout 2013 season was very much for real and show us that he may be able to contribute this season. Bogaerts started last season on the same Portland roster on which Betts now resides and spent the first half of the year there before a mid-season promotion to Triple-A Pawtucket and a late-season call-up to the majors. A similar timetable could be in store for Betts.
Betts' shift to the outfield does not look to be a permanent move, though he could stay out there for the time being to get acclimated to the switch and give the Red Sox a chance to properly assess his abilities. It does not, however, signal that a move is imminent. For the Red Sox, Betts time in the outfield is nothing more than a way to give them options for a move down the road. The more Betts can do, the more easily they can get him into their lineup when the time is right.