NEW YORK -- They have Mookie. They have Rusney. Now what?
At a time when the Red Sox are eagerly anticipating the opportunity to see Rusney Castillo in games to figure out what, exactly, they have in their newly wealthy outfielder, they are enjoying a dazzling display from Mookie Betts in the very position that Castillo is expected to occupy next year.
Betts' first extended stretch as an everyday big leaguer has been filled with the kind of feats that inspired odes from those who followed his minor league trajectory over the last two years. The pattern continued on Tuesday night in New York, when the 21-year-old crushed a homer to the big part of the park in left-center as part of a 3-for-5 night, the first three-hit game of his career, in a 9-4 Red Sox victory over the Yankees. He also showcased his speed and athleticism in making an acrobatic play on a ball hit over his head, racing back and leaping to spear a liner on the warning track in center.
In 15 games since taking over everyday center field duties from Jackie Bradley Jr., Betts is hitting .315 with a .413 OBP and .556 slugging mark. He's slammed three homers and walked more times (9) than he's struck out (8) while stealing three bases. His center field defense remains a work in progress, yet the progress is evident from his prior stints in the big leagues.
"Just being around and being in the atmosphere, you eventually settle in. Having an opportunity to play more is also helping," Betts said. "I see a lot of progress, a lot of things I’ve learned in the outfield. Hitting as well. Baserunning, every aspect of the game, just being here, I’ve learned a lot."
Betts is young (21). He is inexperienced (28 games in the big leagues, and just 298 in the minors). At some point, there is likely a looming adjustment by the league, at which time he will face the kind of adversity that he has not encountered at all since at least April 2013, and perhaps ever in his professional career. If the 2014 season has offered any single lesson to the Red Sox, it's that initial successes in the big leagues do not rule out the possibility of a massive struggle around the corner.
Nonetheless, in his short opportunity in the big leagues, Betts has demonstrated a rare skill set that points to immense upside. He is showcasing the kind of across-the-board ability to impact the game that can help serve as the cornerstone of a winning team.
Consider: Betts and Dodgers prospect Joc Pederson are the only two players in all of professional baseball to smack 15 or more homers and steal 30 or more bases in each of the last two years. Mike Trout hasn't done it. Jacoby Ellsbury hasn't done it. *No one* else, beyond those two, has demonstrated the consistent ability to both smoke the ball and to change the game on the bases over the past two years.
Additionally, Betts displays at least the raw attributes -- good hands, good closing speed on the ball, athleticism and the aptitude to improve noticeably in the three months that he's been playing the outfield -- to suggest that he can be at least a solid defensive center fielder, and possibly more than that.
He is a dynamic player. In many ways, as he carries forward his minor league performance into initial success at the big league level, he represents more of a known commodity than Castillo. Yet the Sox conferred a seven-year, $72.5 million deal on Castillo with the expectation that the 27-year-old will play, with a likelihood that he'll be in center next year.
So what to do with Castillo and Betts?
There will be trade possibilities, of course. Betts is positioning himself in a fashion that suggests a young, controllable player who can front a package for even elite talent. But is the Sox' best hope of long-term success to deal such a player?
If they want to, the Sox can find a spot for Betts. The 21-year-old does have the potential for versatility beyond even what he's shown this year.
Until Memorial Day weekend, he'd spent his entire career playing second base (a position that would appear to be occupied for the foreseeable future in Boston), and he's also played a bit of right this year. It's not hard to imagine that he could also learn to play left, and he's taken ground balls on the left side of the infield as well. There are ways to permit Betts to fit into a roster, just as has been the case this year with Brock Holt.
That said, the Sox are mindful of wanting to avoid putting too much on the 21-year-old's plate. He won't be playing infield for the duration of this year, and as of now, the likelihood is that he'll report to spring training next February being asked to build upon this year's crash course in center field, with that as his primary position moving forward, at least while with the Sox.
In the short term, assuming that Castillo is indeed ready to be the team's everyday center fielder, the Sox certainly have the option of sending Betts back down to Triple-A next year to refine his defensive work and serve as depth. There is successful precedent for doing so.
In 2005, he team had Kevin Youkilis (blocked at third base at the time by Bill Mueller) open the season in Triple-A. Youkilis, who'd shown that he was major league-ready in 2004, wasn't thrilled about the assignment, but he made the most of it, making something of a breakthrough that year by figuring out how to hit for power for the first time in his pro career. Betts is smart enough and talented enough that, even though a Triple-A assignment is far from the preferred course for him, he can benefit from it in similar fashion.
Longer term, the idea of pairing Castillo and Betts -- assuming both emerge as dynamic players who can impact the game at the plate, in the field and on the bases -- offers an echo of some of the most successful outfield pairings in the recent Red Sox past. The 2013 team played at a championship-caliber level in no small part because Jacoby Ellsbury and Shane Victorino were among the most impactful players in the game based on what they could do in every facet of the game. In 2007, the team had Ellsbury flanked by the multi-dimensional J.D. Drew in right field.
General manager Ben Cherington noted at the time that Castillo was introduced that the team maintains its belief in the need to have two center fielders in the lineup: one in center and one in right. Betts and Castillo (who has experience playing right) could provide that dynamic by 2016 (after Shane Victorino's three-year, $39 million contract concludes, at a time when Yoenis Cespedes likewise will have arrived at the end of his contract), and quite possibly before, depending on the health of the rest of the roster.
So, while there is some potential for redundancy with Betts and Castillo, there's also a) uncertainty with both based on their limited to non-existent big league track records, suggesting the value of depth and b) the possibility for a compelling pairing of the two, though doing so likely would ensure that Jackie Bradley Jr. was squeezed into something other than an everyday role going forward (if he isn't traded).
There's a dizzying array of possibilities. Betts chooses not to waste too much time assessing the hypotheticals, instead choosing to focus on the statement that he can make: He has a chance to be a very good big leaguer, and he's not wasting an opportunity to make that case.
"It's just been crazy. It's been nonstop something new. I started as a second baseman, running around and shagging in the outfield turned me into an outfielder now, and that actually, turning into an outfielder, let me move up quicker. ... This whole year has been kind of hectic," Betts said on WEEI's Minor Details podcast. "I have no idea how my career is going to turn right now. I don't even know if I'm an infielder or outfielder anymore. But whichever way it turns, I think I'll be ready for it."