The Red Sox called up top prospect Mookie Betts on Saturday, marking the exact midpoint of the 2014 with a move that many fans (and fantasy owners) might think will lead to great success in Boston. As a born and bred die-hard Red Sox fan I have come to grips with my disappointment in the team. Yes, I know they have won 3 WS titles in the past 10 years, but already this year there have been moves (and non-moves) that make me question the role Betts will ultimately play in the majors this year.
Everywhere he has played, Betts has hit and run and been productive. He rapidly climbed the MLB prospect watch list this season. In 54 games in AA this year, Betts hit .355 with 6 HR, 22 SB and scored 56 runs. This led to a promotion to AAA, which while short-lived was productive. Betts hit .322 in 23 games, swiping 7 bases and hitting 2 HR. Defensively, Betts has played 2B, CF and recently RF, leading experts to think Betts will slot into a RF platoon until Shane Victorino returns from the DL (of course a recent shutdown of Victorino’s rehab assignment could mean Betts is in Boston for the longer term).
Should fantasy owners race out and grab Betts? ESPN just added Betts to the player pool, so he should currently be sitting on waivers in most leagues. Last Friday, Betts was owned in 18% of CBS leagues and 3% of Yahoo leagues. CBS allows for minor league players to be rostered, so this probably had something to with the relatively large ownership. With his call-up, CBS ownership has spiked to 40% (10% of owners with him in their starting lineups). Betts’ ownership is up to 26% in Yahoo leagues. Would seem that owners are snatching up the youngster like the newest Christmas toy.
But owners should temper their expectations, based on the Red Sox history of minor league call-ups. Paul Swydan wrote a great piece on Fangraphs looking into Ben Cherington’s tenure and the minor league call-ups the Sox have had. While players like Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Kevin Youkilis and even Brandon Moss highlight this list, it is important to understand the specific roles and successes these players had with their initial call.
Dustin Pedroia: When Pedroia was called up in 2006 he had been hitting .305 in AAA. Pedroia struggled mightily to hit MLB pitching, finishing the 2006 season with a .191 average in 31 games. I clearly remember a 2B prospect who looked like he could barely fight off pitches and get the ball into the outfield. Sure, Pedroia rebounded in 2007, hitting .317 and has been the everyday 2B in Boston since then.
Kevin Youkilis: Youk got the call in 2004, and responded by batting .260 over 72 games. It wasn’t until 2006 that Youk got full-time playing time and developed into the double-digit HR, 80 run, 80 RBI producer for the World Series winning teams.
Brandon Moss: Moss was called up to the bigs in 2007 while he had been enjoying a very solid AAA season (16 HR, 78 RBI in 133 games). Moss hit .280 over 15 games in the majors without a HR and only 1 RBI. Ultimately he was sent to Pittsburgh, and has found tremendous success in Oakland over the past 2+ seasons.
Jacoby Ellsbury: Ellsbury appeared in 33 games in 2007, mashing a .353 average, stealing 9 bases and even connecting on 3 HR. These numbers were a sign of things to come over the next couple seasons, as Ellsbury stole 120 bases between 2008 and 2009, with 17 HR and an average around .290.
Where does this project Betts to fall? An additional piece to consider is the leash with which management is controlling these young players. Xander Bogaerts won the starting SS position heading into 2014. The left side of the Red Sox infield, while young, was presented as the future (Bogaerts at SS, Will Middlebrooks at 3B), and most fans were excited about the youth movement. Early struggles and injuries led the Sox to resign Stephen Drew and cement him into the SS role, sliding Bogaerts over to 3B. In the outfield, the picture was much the same. Jackie Bradley Jr was anointed the heir to Jacoby Ellsbury in CF. Shane Victorino was supposed to patrol RF, while the platoon of Jonny Gomes and Daniel Nava manned left. Victorino has been injured all season, Bradley has struggled to hit major league pitching, Nava has essentially found his level and Jonny Gomes is garbage (my own humble opinion there). Recently, Brock Holt has brought some life to the OF, but ultimately he is not the long-term solution. Where does Betts figure to factor in here?
Certainly there is room for Betts to roam the OF, perhaps as the major player in RF. Bradley can stay in CF with Holt moving the LF. Nava is a better hitter on the right side, so it seems that he could see playing time against left-handed pitchers. Additionally, Dustin Pedroia has been, well to put it kindly, terrible this year. Pedroia is coming back from a wrist injury, and one has to wonder if he is playing hurt. Perhaps Betts gets some time at 2B to allow Pedroia to rest, and maybe even spend some time on the DL (pure speculation here).
While Betts would appear to be a great table setter and expect to see time at the top of the lineup, John Farrell has been anything but traditional with his lineups. Recently Brock Holt has been the leadoff hitter, with Pedroia, Ortiz and Napoli in the 3-4-5 holes. The rest of the lineup is a crap shoot, with Bogaerts batting 2nd or 7th, Stephen Drew batting 6th or 8th, and Jonny Gomes, AJ Pierzynski, Daniel Nava all getting at-bats in the 6-9 slots. Betts should leadoff, but I can see him at the end of the lineup as well, perhaps 7th, with Drew and Bradley Jr after him.
What are the fantasy implications of his batting order position? Well certainly he stands to score more runs with hitters like Ortiz and Napoli coming up behind him. He also is more likely to be put in position to steal bases with better hitters coming up because those hitters can afford to take a strike to let him steal, while the Gomes’ and Drew’s of the world are less successful in pitcher’s counts.
What do I think will happen with Betts? I would love to see him play basically everyday, I mean why call him up if you are not going to play him. If the Sox did not intend to make him a full-time player, they should have left him in AAA to showcase and have his legend (and trade value) soar. If Betts’ can play everyday, I expect he should get on base, steal and score some runs. Depending on his position eligibility (OF in ESPN, 2B in CBS and SS in Yahoo), he is certainly worth a speculative add. Playing the rest of the season, Betts could steal double-digit bases, score 30 runs and hopefully hold his own with a .280 average. He could certainly outperform those numbers, but he could also struggle as so many have and find himself back in AAA. As a fan, I can only hope the Red Sox are truly invested in Mookie Betts and allow him to work through any growing pains he may face in adjusting to MLB play. It would be a shame to stunt his development by playing him 2-3 times a week when he could be playing every night in AAA.