The permanent record shows that Markus Lynn Betts — soon to be adored by the Fenway masses simply as Mookie — made his major league debut for the Boston Red Sox against the New York Yankees on June 29, 2014.
He started in right field, batted eighth (right behind all-time fan favorites A.J. Pierzynski and Stephen Drew), and picked up his first major league hit in the fourth inning, a single off Yankees starter Chase Whitley. He finished 1 for 3 with a run in an 8-5 Red Sox win.
In that lost season for the Red Sox — what is it with this franchise and its habit of following up duck boat parades with broken-down jalopies of seasons? — Betts was a bright light. Sure, there were a few hiccups along the way, including a return to Pawtucket that he actually welcomed, and a conversion from second base to right field.
But that went as smoothly as anyone dared imagine, as most things with Mookie would. The next Red Sox superstar was on the scene.
So much has happened in the 5½ seasons since, almost all of it good, much of it spectacular. Betts, who turns 27 Oct. 7, has made four straight All-Star appearances and won three Gold Gloves in right field, with a fourth probable this year. (I mean, did you see that throw?)
He finished second in the AL MVP race to Mike Trout in 2016, hitting .318 with 31 homers, 26 stolen bases and 214 hits, then won the award after the Red Sox’ near-perfect 2018, putting up a 32 HR/30 SB season while leading the majors in batting (.346), slugging (.640), and runs (129).
This season has been a bummer, and sometimes it has felt like something of a letdown with Betts, too. But that’s largely because the bar is set so high. Entering Friday, he had 29 homers and a .917 OPS, and his 134 runs are the most by a Red Sox player since Ted Williams scored 150 in 1949.
That’s the company Betts keeps: Red Sox legends, icons for all-time.
His most statistically similar players on baseball-reference.com include Carl Yastrzemski, Jim Rice, and Manny Ramirez, and that’s just offense. His skills are more varied than any Red Sox player I can think of.
While Rafael Devers and Xander Bogaerts have had spectacular seasons — man, the rest of the roster really failed this team, huh? — it is Betts, the brilliant defender and baserunner, who still leads the way in Wins Above Replacement (6.9) by a large margin.
I bring all of this up because, well, frankly, it seems like some of you really need the reminder right about now.
It’s fun to appreciate Betts’s greatness in real time, but there’s a desperation to it too. That debut against the Yankees wasn’t that long ago. And yet it seems the conclusion to his time with the Red Sox is arriving much too soon.
That’s a shame. It doesn’t have to be this way. And I’m increasingly annoyed with anyone who wants to be complicit in trading Betts this winter.
Yeah, we know the circumstances. He’s a free agent after the 2020 season. He has made it clear that he likes playing in Boston. He’s made it even clearer that he intends to maximize his value, which means getting to free agency.
Red Sox ownership (requisite acknowledgement that John Henry owns the Globe) has made it clear there will be a tighter budget, its prerogative given that the Sox had the highest payroll in baseball this year. Dave Dombrowski made the regrettable decisions to award Chris Sale and Nate Eovaldi a total of $213 million in contract extensions between the end of last season and the start of this one, which is why Dave Dombrowski no longer has his job.
That opens the door to Betts being traded this offseason. Colleague Alex Speier offered a warning of the consequences of this lousy season and the desire to cut payroll a few weeks ago, writing:
“Dombrowski put the Sox in a position where — based on their payroll projections and a significant desire to get under the luxury tax threshold sometime in the next two years to reset the penalty structure — they’ll likely end up parting with J.D. Martinez, Mookie Betts, or possibly even both this winter.”
This, Red Sox fans, is unacceptable, and I can’t believe I’m hearing from so many who are rationalizing it. The Red Sox would be making a huge mistake in trading Betts. The notion that they have to is nonsense, and we shouldn’t fall for it.
You want prospects? First of all, why? This team has a fine core of young talent, which includes Betts, who is better than any prospect you’ll ever acquire will become. And he’s not going to bring a ton in return because he’s a free agent in a year. Put down your Baseball America handbook and appreciate the great player you already have.
I’m convinced the incredible success of Bill Belichick, in his emotionless approach to roster-building, has carried over to New England sports fans in the worst way. We’re always looking for a bargain, value, and too often taking management’s side when it comes to divvying up cash.
Football is different. You have 53 players, and many different ways to win. Superstars matter in baseball, especially well-rounded ones like Betts.
I understand that the Red Sox need clarity on his willingness to re-sign. I hope he gives them that, though I suspect he would stay if they — wait for it — make the best offer.
But this is not a player, in the heart of his prime, that you trade a year from free agency out of fear he will leave — or worse, because he damages your budget. This is a cornerstone player, one who does everything right, one who has been the best player in a given season in a league in which all-timer Mike Trout also plays.
Trading him wouldn’t be quite the same thing as trading Yaz after the ’67 season, or Rice after ’79. But it’s awfully close. I know this: The Red Sox will rue the day they let him go. This is Fred Lynn to the Angels, Luis Tiant to the Yankees, Carlton Fisk to the White Sox. We don’t know where the ghost will be located, but we know it will haunt.
Betts, who wisely turned down an eight-year, $200 million offer after the ’17 season, says he is taking the emotion out of it now. That’s his prerogative. You, as a fan, don’t have to. And I’m telling you, once he’s elsewhere and the Red Sox have a few magic beans to plant in Pawtucket, you’re going to feel the emotion of it then.
This could be Mookie Betts’s last weekend playing for the Red Sox. It feels like we just said hello.