FORT MYERS, Fla. – Red Sox manager John Farrell took satisfaction in seeing “what would project to be our regular lineup” take some shape in the Red Sox’ exhibition win over the Rays on Tuesday. But the group was incomplete.
While Shane Victorino was back in right field, he led off. Mookie Betts sat. To some observers, the idea of a regular Red Sox lineup without Betts atop it is little short of ridiculous. Unsolicited, two scouts who follow the Red Sox offered an opinion on Tuesday that the notion of a Red Sox team that doesn’t feature Betts on Opening Day is little short of unfathomable.
“Not have him as your center fielder and leadoff hitter? Are you kidding me?” said one of the scouts. “This guy could be an All-Star. This guy could be an All-Star this year. He could have been Rookie of the Year last year if he’d had more at-bats. He could be their best player.”
There’s little question that Betts represents a dynamic option, someone whose skill set – the ability to hit for average, drive the ball, minimize strikeouts, take walks, and get on base, and steal bases – makes him a prototypical leadoff hitter. Save, perhaps, for Dustin Pedroia, no one else on the Red Sox features that broad array of gifts, which is why observers struggle to imagine the Sox turning from a potential hand-in-glove fit with Betts as the leadoff hitter to alternatives such as Victorino (who doesn’t match Betts’ on-base abilities).
Officially, there’s still a competition. So long as Victorino is healthy, manager John Farrell has described Betts as being in competition with Rusney Castillo (currently sidelined with an oblique injury) and Jackie Bradley Jr. for the job in center. But it’s difficult to find anyone who anticipates that Betts won’t be taking the first at-bat of the Red Sox season on April 6 in Philadelphia.
The fact that Betts, 22, now enjoys such standing is somewhat startling given where he was a year ago. In March 2014, Betts was on the minor league back fields, trying to prove he belonged in Double A. He was taking groundballs at second and, on occasion, at short, though infield coordinator Andy Fox was working with him at short mostly to help him build up arm strength.
During rounds of batting practice, once his minor league infield work was done, Betts would also shag fly balls in the outfield. But at the time, he hardly envisioned a future path to the big leagues as an outfielder.
“When I was out in the outfield, it was just messing around,” Betts recalled of his days 12 months ago. “It ended up being pretty helpful that I was out there messing around. But at this point last spring, I was just focused on making the Double-A team, getting ready for the season, and having a good year.”
At that point, Betts offered signs of considerable skill but didn’t have a clear path forward. He was a second baseman in an organization with Pedroia. He hadn’t been asked to play short since committing six throwing errors in a 12-game stretch in Lowell at the start of his pro career in 2012. He hadn’t played the outfield since high school.
So, at that point, what did he think the likely spot for his big league debut?
“Probably second base, somewhere,” said Betts. “It may not have been with us, but I would have guessed it would have been second base somewhere.”
One of the scouts noted that Betts looked the part of an above-average defensive second baseman in the minors, suggesting that his ability at that position meant it was possible that his value and impact could be greater with another team than it might be with the Sox, where Pedroia is expected to hold down that position for years. Nonetheless, the scout also noted that Betts’ other gifts suggest that he has plenty of value to the Sox.
In his 2014 big league debut, he produced like a potential star. Betts hit .291 with a .368 OBP and .444 slugging mark, good for an OPS+ of 128 (meaning an OPS 28 percent better than league average). He became one of just 30 rookies at the age of 21 or younger ever to have an OPS+ of 125 or better in at least 200 plate appearances. His career is progressing at a breathtaking pace that does make it startling to consider where he was a year ago.
“As far as how quickly he kind of blew up … I’m pretty excited about the things that he’s done, how quickly he’s moved, the player he’s turned into,” said Sean Coyle, who was preparing to open the season with Betts in Portland a year ago at this time. “It’s been exciting to watch.”
Of course, Betts’ fast track does not offer any guarantees about the future. As much as his skill set earns raves, the same was true of Xander Bogaerts entering a 2014 season that yielded an unexpectedly drastic struggle.
Moreover, there’s plenty of refinement needed, particularly as Betts adjusts to full-time life in the outfield and tries to learn how to improve his jumps and route efficiency so he is able to use his athleticism as an asset rather than to cover some of the false steps he took last year. He has not taken any ground balls this spring and has no plans to do so.
“I know I’ve got a lot to work on in the outfield,” said Betts. “Being an infielder my whole life, you do kind of miss it sometimes. But I know my future is probably in the outfield so I’ve got to get over it and get my work in in the outfield.”
He has impressed while doing just that – not merely for his willingness to work, but also for the way in which he’s approached the task.
“He’s willing to learn to get to that point. Sometimes a kid of his stature, sometimes they go, ‘I know it all. I don’t need to learn.’ It’s the opposite approach for him,” noted Shane Victorino, who first crossed paths with Betts while on a Triple A rehab assignment last June. “Day one when I was in Pawtucket, this guy was asking me about positioning, jumps, reads. I’ll take that guy any day.
“He’s ahead of the curve. Mookie’s got so much upside, so much potential,” added Victorino. “The kid that he is, the willingness to want to be better, is what I feel like will let him reach greatness.”
Those sorts of assessments are not offered lightly. But the fact that they are offered at all underscores just how dramatically Betts’ circumstances have changed in the span of 12 months, from being a player for whom it was difficult to discern a path to the big leagues with the Sox to being one whose absence from the roster, from a role as an everyday outfielder and leadoff hitter, is now virtually unimaginable.