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Mookie Mania: Is Boston's Betts Already a Top-Five Outfielder?

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Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

On August 1, 2013, Mookie Betts of the Salem Red Sox finished 0-for-4 with 2 strikeouts in a 5-0 loss to the Lynchburg Hillcats.  It had been a rough three weeks since Betts's promotion to High-A Salem of the Carolina League, and that night's performance dropped his High-A batting average to .227.  The next night, Betts went 1-for-4 with a single and a walk in a game that is noteworthy only because it marked the beginning of a 66-game, regular-season on-base streak for Betts, a streak that lasted until May 17, 2014, by which time "Mookie Mania" was sweeping both the prospect world and Red Sox Nation.  The on-base streak ended, but Betts kept hitting.  In mid-August, little more than a year after taking the collar in Lynchburg, he earned a promotion to Boston.

"Mookie" was born Markus Lynn Betts on October 7, 1992, and his given initials could not be more appropriate.  With only one full season and less than 200 games under his belt, Boston's young centerfielder already ranks among MLB's fastest-rising stars.

Mike Trout and Bryce Harper: that's the complete list of outfielders who absolutely should be drafted ahead of Betts in 2016.  There are others, of course, who could go earlier.  Unless you think his run production will diminish and the stolen bases will disappear, Andrew McCutchen remains a first-round lock.  Same for the oft-injured Giancarlo Stanton.  Other top-tier outfielders include A.J. Pollock, Starling Marte, George Springer, Lorenzo Cain, Ryan Braun, and Justin Upton, any or all of whom could be drafted before Betts.  Most of these players offer the power-speed combo (20-20 potential) fantasy owners crave.

The difference between Betts and those other outfielders is in the magnitude of their respective upsides.  Braun already is 32 years old.  Cain will turn 30 in April.  McCutchen is 29.  Pollock and Upton are 28.  Marte is 27.  Even the whippersnappers of the group, Stanton and Springer, will turn 27 later this year.  Betts, meanwhile, will play the entire 2016 season as a 23-year-old, so there is no telling when he will reach his ceiling, or where exactly that ceiling might be.

The only way to project (i.e. guess) Betts's possible ceiling is to evaluate his performance to-date in light of both his skill set and the opportunity presented to him.  For instance, in 2015 Betts hit .291 with 18 HR and 21 SB while playing a superb centerfield, good enough for a team-leading 5.52 BWARP according to Baseball Prospectus, and yet, despite this outstanding performance in his first full season while learning a new position (he came up as a second baseman), Betts's sterling debut could have been even better than it was.

For one thing, Betts got off to a very slow start.  A memorable double-steal in the Red Sox home-opener made Boston bloggers go bananas, but it also helped obscure the fact that by the end of May Betts was hitting a mere .246 with a sub-.700 OPS.  With the team struggling to score runs, he was dropped from the leadoff spot to the bottom third of the batting order, prompting his fantasy owners (including yours truly) to curse the day Boston Manager John Farrell was born.  Before long, of course, Betts caught fire at the plate and returned to the leadoff spot.  Then, in late July, a full-speed collision with Fenway Park's right-field wall caused him to miss two weeks with concussion symptoms.  Fantasy owners, therefore, have good reason to hope that a full and healthy season as Boston's leadoff hitter, coupled with the natural growth one would expect from experience, will allow the young phenom to improve on all of his offensive numbers, the percentages as well as the counting stats.

Betts's skill set also augurs well for his future, both immediate and long-term.  In addition to his power-speed combo, he boasts exceptional plate discipline for a player so young.  A 66-game on-base streak tells part of the story; a career minor-league walk-strikeout ratio of 174:137 tells the other.  Those numbers are Pujols-esque (actually, they're better than Pujols's minor-league numbers).  Even Betts's 67:113 Major-League ratio compares favorably to Mike Trout's 361:647.  At 5'9"-180, of course, Betts never will match the home-run prowess of the 6'2"-235 lb. Trout, but Betts's fantasy owners won't care as long as he's stuffing all those roto categories and avoiding the huge strikeout totals that diminish a player's value in head-to-head leagues.

Now, take a player with Betts's skill set and then put him in any organization, atop any lineup, and in any home park you like.  Is there any doubt that you'd want him in Colorado or Boston for the next 8-10 years?

Two years ago, while he was still Mookie-the-prospect, I acquired Betts in my dynasty league.  I was rebuilding, but the price was Paul Goldschmidt, and the pieces accompanying Betts were Rafael Montero and Jedd Gyorko, whose value, suffice it to say, I misjudged.  Even in a league filled with good-natured souls, the trade caused a few audible gasps and some mild controversy.  Two years later, however, I would do the trade again. In a re-draft league I'd rather have Goldschmidt for 2016, but for the next 8-10 years I'd rather have Betts.

That's something no one in Lynchburg could have seen coming back in August 2013, and it's about the highest endorsement I can give the young centerfielder.