Pipeline Perspectives: Betts has improved dramatically
Speed, versatility lifts Red Sox prospect over Cardinals' Wong as best at second base
There's a good amount of subjectivity regarding baseball prospects. With the evaluation of talent being in the eye of the beholder, finding consensus is often difficult. Even Jim Callis and Jonathan Mayo of MLBPipeline.com don't always see eye to eye. They discuss their viewpoints regularly in a feature called Pipeline Perspectives. Submit a topic for them to debate.
A year ago, it was valid to wonder whether Mookie Betts might be better at bowling strikes rather than punishing them. In his first extended taste of pro ball, the Red Sox second-base prospect hit a respectable .267 but slugged just .307 at short-season Lowell. Scouts wondered if Betts had a skill that could carry him to the Major Leagues.
Now the question isn't whether Betts, who was Tennessee high school boys bowler of the year in 2010, has a legitimate big league tool. Rather, it's which one stands out the most.
Betts had a breakout season in 2013, batting a combined .314/.417/.506 with 15 homers and 38 steals between low Class A Greenville and high Class A Salem at age 20. He continued to win over scouts with a strong performance in the Arizona Fall League. Betts went from an unknown to No. 62 on MLBPipeline.com's Top 100 Prospects list for 2014.
That made Betts the third-ranked second baseman on the Top 100, right on the heels of Kolten Wong of the Cardinals, who was No. 58, and Rougned Odor of the Rangers at No. 59. While both Wong and Odor have longer track records of success, I'd take Betts over any second-base prospect in baseball. Jonathan Mayo holds firm in his belief that Wong is a safer bet, but no current second-base phenom has better all-around ability than Betts.
A 2011 fifth-round pick out of Overton High in Nashville, Betts agreed to a $750,000 bonus at the signing deadline that August. Over the course of the past year, he has developed into a player who can make an impact in all phases of the game -- something that very few second basemen can do.
For all of Betts' gaudy stats from 2013, the one that may be the most impressive is his 81-57 walk-to-strikeout ratio, which ranked fourth-best among all Minor League hitters. He combines uncommon discipline and pitch recognition with consistent hard contact, which bodes extremely well for his ability to hit at higher levels.
So does Betts' above-average speed, which should help him beat out hits and makes him a threat to steal. He swiped 38 bases and was caught just four times last year, giving him the third-highest stolen-base percentage (.904) in the Minors.
Betts has more power than most middle infielders, too, and his 199-point improvement in slugging last year was no fluke. Toning down a leg kick gave him more balance at the plate, where he waits for pitches he can drive and then takes advantage with plenty of bat speed. That makes it possible for Betts to match the 15 homers he produced in 2013 once he gets to the Major Leagues.
Betts can make a difference defensively as well, with his quickness and athleticism allowing him to make plays that many second basemen can't. Though his arm is somewhat fringy for the left side of the infield, the Red Sox may try him at shortstop and center field this year. The versatility will enhance Betts' chances of playing in Boston, especially considering that Dustin Pedroia is under contract through 2021.
If Betts keeps producing like he did in 2013, the Red Sox will find a way to get him into their lineup. With his tools, there's no reason he can't.