Mookie Betts leads all of the minors in batting average with a .453 mark. (John Corneau/Lowell Spinners)
Feats of Mookie: Defying superlatives.
Mookie Betts recovered from his two-game slump — a doubleheader on Friday in which he went 1-for-4 in both contests — by reasserting himself as an unstoppable force for Double-A Portland. The 21-year-old went 4-for-5, launching his second homer of the season in his final at-bat of the night, for his second four-hit game of the year and his sixth in his professional career (all of which have come in the last 12 months). In the process, he reclaimed the minor league lead in batting average (.453). He also leads the Eastern League in OBP (.492) and ranks third in slugging (.717).
Entering this season, there was some question as to whether Betts’ extraordinary breakout season of 2013 was real or a mirage. The contrast between his first two pro seasons — a 2012 campaign where he spent all year in Short-Season Lowell, hitting .267/.352/.307 with no homers and nine extra-base hits in 71 games, compared to a 2013 season where he tore through Single-A Greenville and earned a promotion to High-A Salem, getting better along the way en route to a combined .314/.417/.506 line with 15 homers, 55 extra-base hits and 38 steals in 127 games — created some pause about how highly he should be regarded in the Red Sox prospect rankings. Plenty of tools — bat speed, excellent plate discipline and hand-eye coordination, some power, quick-twitch athleticism that lent itself to both strong defensive range and great jumps as a baserunner — were on display, but it was hard to ignore the idea that his year might, just might, be a one-hit wonder that he might never match.
His start to the 2014 season, against a higher level of competition in Double-A, suggests that his performance of a year ago was no mere illusion. Obviously, his willingness to conjure a couple weeks of Nintendo numbers is unsustainable, particularly given his obscenely high batting average on balls in play (though it is worth noting that Betts may well be in possession of The Force, permitting him to bend the wills of weaker-minded opponents in a fashion that permits him to steer opposing defenders away from anything with which he makes contact and thus to sustain unusually high BABIPs). Nonetheless, the tools that proved so fascinating last year remain on full display this year, as Betts continues to show the ability to transform games in numerous ways.
And so, it is worth asking: Where does Betts rank right now among Red Sox prospects, at a time when he is laying waste to a league in which he is one of the youngest position players, someone who would be amidst his junior year of college had he not signed with the Sox out of high school?
Xander Bogaerts, the obvious top prospect in the Sox system, will soon have enough big league at-bats to graduate from prospect status. The same almost certainly is true of Jackie Bradley Jr. — though certainly, a case could now be made for Betts as a better prospect than Bradley, given that he appears to have the greater ability to hit for average and power, is the superior baserunner and seems a good candidate for at least comparable on-base numbers. (Bradley has an unquestioned defensive/positional advantage. It’s close between the two of them.)
Henry Owens and Betts are in a similar place as far as dominating older competition as 21-year-olds. Owens is probably still ahead of Betts based on a longer track record — though Betts is the player with the tools and athleticism to suggest even more upside. Given that Owens has sustained his dominance this year, it would be hard to suggest that Betts is the better prospect than him right now. But Betts’ performance over the last 12 months, since he began his assault on the game in Single-A Greenville last May, now has been sustained over enough time and across enough levels that he’s likely leapfrogged the other players who were ahead of him in the Sox’ prospect rankings entering the year (Allen Webster was No. 4 in Baseball America, Blake Swihart was No. 5 and Garin Cecchini was No. 6, with Betts checking in at No. 7) given the diversity of his skill set and what now appears to be a more established track record of translating tools into outrageous performance.
– Webster’s ongoing control struggles have reduced the likelihood that he’ll reach his considerable ceiling.
– Swihart has been outstanding in Portland, but there’s still a leap of projection faith with him that he’ll develop power and sustain high OBPs given that he has one homer, four extra-base hits and just one walk as compared to seven strikeouts so far.
– Betts has furthered his case as someone capable of hitting for average and getting on base at a Cecchini-like clip, while displaying superior power as well as defensive and baserunning skills and tools. A number of evaluators who saw Cecchini and Betts playing on the same team in the Arizona Fall League came away viewing Betts as the superior talent, but with some hesitancy based on track record; the track record argument is falling by the wayside, however, particularly given that Betts has been more dominant against Double-A competition as a 21-year-old this year than Cecchini — still an excellent prospect, by the way, and a virtual lock to be an everyday big leaguer — was as a 22-year-old last year.
Right now, Betts looks an awful lot like the best Red Sox position playing prospect once Bogaerts gets enough at-bats to move beyond prospect status, and if someone wanted to make the argument for him as the best prospect in the Red Sox system, the logic of such a position could not be dismissed outright.
TRIPLE-A PAWTUCKET RED SOX: 1-0 WIN (9 INNINGS), 3-2 LOSS (7 INNINGS) VS. BUFFALO (BLUE JAYS)
(BOX GAME 1, BOX GAME 2)
– Outfielder Shane Victorino went 0-for-3 in his first rehab start, fouling out to first, grounding out to third and flying out to left before getting lifted after six innings. He did not have any defensive chances in right field. Victorino is slated to start again on Monday and Tuesday for Pawtucket before being reassessed as to his readiness to return to the majors.
– Right-hander Anthony Ranaudo turned in his best outing of the season, firing six shutout innings and permitting just two hits (both singles) and two walks while striking out five. He threw 62 of 92 pitches (67 percent) for strikes, working down in the zone with better velocity (93-95 mph) than he’d shown through his first three starts, through which he’d more often topped out at 93 mph (while sitting around 89-91) than sitting at that mark that characterized a baseline for most of his outings in 2013. The right-hander entered the day having allowed 14 runs (10 earned) in 14 1/3 innings; with his outing on Saturday, his ERA dropped from 6.28 to 4.35.
– Catcher Christian Vazquez had his second straight multi-hit game, going 2-for-4 with a double and delivering a ninth-inning walkoff single in the 1-0 victory in the first game. Vazquez is hitting .283/.320/.413 in 12 games. He also threw out yet another attempted base thief, and he’s caught seven of 12 would-be base stealers (58 percent).
– Right-hander Alex Wilson tossed a scoreless inning in the second game, and he has yet to permit a run in seven games (6 2/3 innings) this year. He’s punched out eight and walked five. Interestingly, whereas Wilson had been a four-seam/slider pitcher who generated primarily flyball contact prior to 2013, last year, in part because of how a thumb injury that ultimately required surgery impacted his grip of his four-seamer, he became more reliant on a two-seam fastball that allowed him to generate groundballs as never before. That’s carried over into this year for the 27-year-old, who has recorded 16 of his 20 outs this year by either strikeout or groundout.
– First baseman/outfielder Alex Hassan went 1-for-3 with his first homer of the season and a walk in the second game of the double header. The 26-year-old is posting a line that is largely in keeping with his Triple-A track record dating to 2012, hitting .271 with a .368 OBP and .424 slugging mark, showing reliable on-base skills with less consistent power. Right now, if a need were to arise for a right-handed hitting outfielder, Hassan might be the logical choice over a more highly regarded prospect such as Bryce Brentz based on the consistency and reliability of his offensive approach.
DOUBLE-A PORTLAND SEA DOGS: 6-1 WIN AT NEW BRITAIN (TWINS)
– Blake Swihart continued to rake, going 2-for-4 (though with a pair of strikeouts) to improve his line to .349/.364/.512. The 22-year-old has gotten on base in all 11 of his games this year.
– Right-hander Mike Augliera, 23, tossed six shutout innings, allowing three hits and two walks while striking out two and recording nine outs via groundball. While Saturday was his best outing of the young season, Augliera’s strike-throwing ability and willingness to pitch to contact and get groundballs has made him the most consistent provider of innings in Portland. He’s pitched at least six frames in each of his three starts so far.
HIGH-A SALEM RED SOX: 2-0 WIN AT WINSTON-SALEM (WHITE SOX)
– A year ago, right-hander Justin Haley struggled to find the strike zone (5.3 walks per nine), resulting in considerable inconsistency in Single-A Greenville despite the fact that he featured strikeout-an-inning stuff and held opponents to a .219 average. Through three starts this year, Haley has been one of the more interesting performers in the Red Sox system with the 2012 sixth-rounder’s latest excellent outing — six shutout innings with six punchouts and one walk — adding to a strong start. Haley, 22, has a 2.57 ERA in three starts spanning 14 innings, with 14 strikeouts, just four walks and 33 of his 42 outs coming by groundball or strikeout.
– Kevin Heller/Howdy Grosskloss Watch: Salem outfielder Kevin Heller went 1-for-3 with a double. The 24-year-old has reached in all 13 games, hitting .366/.480/.634 with nine extra-base hits in 13 games.
SINGLE-A GREENVILLE DRIVE: 3-3 SUSPENDED GAME (6 INNINGS) AT SAVANNAH (METS)
– Second baseman Wendell Rijo went 2-for-3 with a double. The 18-year-old is now carrying an impressive .333/.469/.513 line through 12 games (if one includes his stats from Saturday’s suspended contest, which is scheduled to be completed next month).
– Catcher Jake Romanski, 23, went 2-for-3, and he now has hit in all 11 games he’s played in this year. He also stole his third base in as many attempts. The San Diego State product is hitting .326/.380/.435 in the early going.
– Hard-throwing right-hander Mario Alcantara lasted just three innings, allowing three runs on five hits and five walks while striking out three. He has 13 walks and five strikeouts in 11 innings. He threw fewer than half his pitches (38 of 78) for strikes.