Let's get to this first: It's a matter of when, not if. And that when could be very, very soon.
As of Thursday, the Red Sox hadn't made a decision to promote Mookie Betts from Triple-A to the big leagues, and didn't plan to do so for Friday's game in New York. Yet there is active dialogue in the organization about when his call-up might occur, with the second baseman-turned-center fielder-turned-right fielder (as of Thursday night) on the radar as an option to come up as soon as this weekend's series against the Yankees, maybe next week against the Cubs at Fenway ... maybe later. (In the more immediate term, Betts is part of a conversation that includes other right-handed batters in Pawtucket who are hitting quite well, including Ryan Roberts and Alex Hassan.)
But in all likelihood, the timing of Betts' promotion now can be measured in weeks and days rather than months. And that reflects an extraordinary development.
Betts is 21 years old, six days younger than Xander Bogaerts. He seems likely to make his big league debut less than three years since he made the decision to turn pro and sign with the Sox as a fifth-round pick on Aug. 15, 2011. He is following an ambitious development path unlike any high school position player taken by the Red Sox in the last 20-plus years. (Phil Plantier was the last Red Sox high school position draftee to make his big league debut either at age 21 or three years removed from being drafted.)
It's been a head-spinning blitz for Betts. Consider: In April 2013, with little fanfare, he broke camp and went from extended spring training in Fort Myers to play for Single-A Greenville. In the span of 15 months, he's gone from Greenville to High-A Salem (July 2013) to the Arizona Fall League (October 2013) to Double-A Portland (April 2014) to Triple-A Pawtucket (June 2014) and now to the doorstep of the big leagues, with a likely debut either this month or next.
"I was actually just thinking about that not too long ago. Not too long ago I was in Greenville," Betts noted at McCoy Stadium this week. "I've been constantly packing and unpacking my car. It seems like my car is just jam-packed all the time. But it's just a blessing to be able to go through all the levels and be at this point."
While a rare feat, Betts' blitz through the system certainly isn't unprecedented in major league annals. Yet the nature of his ascent is wildly atypical in at least one respect.
Most players who fly through the minor league ranks arrive in professional baseball with a determination to do just that and a conviction that they're capable of doing the same. They define ambitious schedules, goals to be big leaguers in 'X' number of years.
That wasn't Betts' view of the landscape when he signed a dual-sport contract for a $750,000 bonus on Aug. 15, 2011.
"When I signed, I got my dual-sport contract for five years. I told myself, I'm going to play these five years and get out, because there's no way I'm going to be able to hang with these guys," Betts recalled this week in McCoy Stadium. "But once I started seeing a little success and started seeing that I can play, I didn't really necessarily have a timetable. I just knew I wanted to make it sooner than later."
Betts' success has been unusual in that it has been so unassuming. And perhaps that has been part of the secret of it.
Despite the inconvenience of a car crowded with his effects -- one that he seemingly would do well not to unpack in Pawtucket just yet -- he's transitioned seamlessly from level to level, quickly figuring out how to excel at every step up the ladder.
It took him about 21 games after his promotion to Salem to get his bearings; he hit .227 with a .289 OBP and .400 slugging mark through Aug. 1, then hit the gas pedal as the most dominant player in the league down the stretch, reaching base in each of the final 30 games of the regular season. That performance offered Betts a revelation.
"I have no idea how I've had the success that I've had," Betts admitted. "But I'm just trying to develop an approach and sticking to it, learning to believe in myself that I belong out here, with these older guys, and not just bowing down and saying, 'OK, you guys are older. Go ahead.' I feel like I'm out here and I'm able to play the same way everybody else is."
Actually, he's been able to separate himself from most of his peers, regardless of their age, flying over the speed bumps that are supposed to characterize the movement from one level to the next. He went 3-for-6 in his first game in the Arizona Fall League and, despite sporadic playing time, reached base in 12 of the 14 games in which he had a plate appearance.
This year, he reached base in his first 36 games with Double-A Portland. Since his promotion to Pawtucket, he's gotten on base in all 22 of the games in which he's played, carrying a .330 average, .422 OBP and .455 slugging mark with more walks (14) than strikeouts (13) to this point. Pawtucket marks the fourth straight stop in the Sox system in which Betts has posted an average of .296 or better and an OBP of .414 or better.
Players are expected to struggle in their first exposure to more advanced pitching. Each step up the ladder is supposed to be accompanied by a humbling realization of the improved quality of play. But Betts has seemingly run downhill across levels; there's been no Heartbreak Hill.
What allows a player to do that?
"I don't have the answer to that," said Red Sox farm director Ben Crockett. "[Betts is] probably not seeing as much of a transition [between levels as others]. That might be the answer -- he just sees it as another game in another place, takes the approach he had in the previous place. That's the area where guys can be the most challenged when they move to a new level, when they make it something more and try to elevate their game to that new level. They were promoted because their game was at a point where it was ready to be challenged. That's something he's done very well, going out and being himself, not letting the moment overwhelm him and continuing to take the same approach of grinding at-bats, getting pitches to hit, being aggressive to those and not throwing away at-bats. Those are the things that I think have allowed him to continue to succeed at each point."
The performance has inspired something between enthusiasm and amazement by Red Sox coaches, officials and players. Yet even at a time when his day-to-day routine has been transformed by the constancy of attention, Betts shows no evidence of arrogance.
In some ways, he comes across as a player who doesn't realize the rarity of his attributes (elite pitch recognition and understanding of the strike zone, spectacular hand-eye coordination and a direct, level swing that he can keep in the zone long enough to barrel balls regardless of location).
"There's a lot of talk about whether [pitch recognition] is something you can teach or not, something that's innate. I don't know the answer to that. But I know what he does, how effortlessly he does it, you can't teach that," said Pawtucket teammate Alex Hassan. "You can teach someone to make small improvements on it, looking for certain pitches in certain counts, looking for the ball up if you're having trouble swinging at breaking balls in the dirt, you can improve on it. But the level of how effortlessly and how well he recognizes pitches, you can't teach that. You can't teach that advanced of a skill set. That's something he had in Greenville, which is why when he goes up to a new level, he has a really great swing that stays on a plane for a really long time, he's on off-speed, he's on fastballs, he can catch up to fastballs, so really it's just a matter of him getting used to the speed and sharpness of new pitching, but it's not like he's got a hole in his swing that upper level guys can exploit.
"[But] you talk about the possibility to him of being called up and he's just so happy to be here. That's exactly how it comes off in a genuine, honest, humble way, which is awesome," Hassan continued. "Especially today, with how much attention is given to minor league players and high first-round picks, there's more media coverage of the minor leagues than there ever has been, and I've played with guys and come across guys who have the feeling that they're already superstars before they get to the big leagues. When you come across guys who are the exact opposite of that, who have every reason with all the attention to feel that way and don't act that way, it's almost refreshing. Mookie certainly fits that mold. He's just a kid who wants to go out there and learn, play and have fun."
Betts is thisclose to having the opportunity to measure his talents against those of the best players and pitchers in the world, to show off the baseball instincts and athleticism that have made him a multi-dimensional prospect capable of hitting for average, getting on base, driving the ball from line to line while impacting the game both on the bases and in the field. Manager John Farrell already has acknowledged following Betts' performance on a day-to-day basis, with obvious curiosity about how he might be able to impact the big league team.
Yet even with that attention, true to form, Betts declines to express certainties about what he might be able to do in an unfamiliar setting. The fact that he has moved so quickly between levels is no guarantee that he will be able to avoid traditional challenges and struggles when he advances to face the highest level of competition, where holes that previously didn't appear become not only visible but exploited.
"I don't know how that transition [to the big leagues] is. I don't know what being ready for that level is. But if I was to get the call, I feel like with [third base and infield coach Brian Butterfield] and [first base and outfield coach Arnie Beyeler] and Farrell, they'll just say, 'Go play' -- same way other managers have. That's all I can do, go play and figure it out on my own."
Time and again in the last 14 months, he's shown the ability to do just that. That steady performance hasn't been enough to create arrogance in the 21-year-old, though finally there are the first signs of confidence -- and the understanding that an accomplishment that Betts viewed as impossible three years ago now is well within reach.
"Whenever I get the call. I feel like I'll be ready. ... [But] people at home text me, saying, can I have tickets? I'm not even there," said Betts. "Getting to the big leagues is hard, but I've talked to guys and they've said it's not getting to the big leagues, it's staying in the big leagues. I feel like I can get there at some point, but my experience there will determine whether I'm able to stay there or not. That's the part that I'm excited to see -- to see how I can play for a period of time and be able to stay."