As everyone in the baseball world knows, the Boston Red Sox promoted hot prospect Mookie Betts to the major leagues this past weekend. Obviously we have no choice but to make him Monday's Prospect of the Day.
Mookie Betts was drafted in the fifth round in 2011 from high school in Brentwood, Tennessee. He was a standout athlete and succeeded in baseball, basketball, and bowling. Scouts also liked his speed and his makeup, but his lack of size (he was listed at 6-0, 170 in high school but this was obviously wrong; he was closer to 5-8), a college commitment to the University of Tennessee, and the fact that his tools other than speed were considered average kept him from going earlier in the draft. The Red Sox had to go over slot to sign him at $750,000.
He played just one game in rookie ball in '11 due to the late signing deadline under the old CBA. Sent to Lowell in the New York-Penn League for 2012, he hit .267/.352/.302 with 20 steals, 32 walks, and 30 strikeouts in 251 at-bats. Scouting reports gave him good marks for speed, strike zone judgment, and overall quickness, but he had virtually no power and didn't show the arm strength to handle shortstop. He was an interesting athlete and young, but there was no particular reason to project a breakthrough in 2013.
Betts had other ideas.
He opened 2013 with Greenville in the Low-A South Atlantic League. He suddenly showed more pop and maintained his strike zone judgment, hitting .296/.418/.477 in 76 games with 58 walks and just 40 strikeouts in 277 at-bats. He also stole 18 bases in 20 attempts. Promoted to High-A Salem in the Carolina League for the second half, he took the hitting up another notch with a .341/.414/.551 line, 23 walks and only 17 strikeouts in 185 at-bats. Don't forget 20 more steals in 22 attempts.
In my book this year, I gave him a "strong Grade B" and comped him to Ray Durham, pointing out that Durham was "also a fifth round pick of similar size and skill."
I considered a B+ and I wish I had gone with that given what Mookie has done in 2014: .355/.443/.551 in 54 games with Double-A Portland, followed by a .322/.425/.444 line in 23 games for Triple-A Pawtucket. He's maintained strong strike zone judgement at both levels, with a combined 51/33 BB/K on the year. Don't forget 29 steals in 34 attempts.
A right-handed hitter and thrower, Betts was born October 7, 1992. As noted, his athleticism has always been respected. He's maintained his speed but has added more power as he's matured physically. His batting eye is exceptional and hasn't slipped at all as he's moved up the ladder. Defensively, he has the quickness to be an above-average defender at second base, perhaps even excellent as he continues to cut down on errors. The Red Sox began using him in the outfield at Pawtucket and he's held his own thus far. He continues to draw praise for his makeup and work ethic.
So let's summarize. Betts is fast and he uses that speed very well on the bases.. He has more pop than you'd expect given his size, due to plenty of bat speed and a sound swing. He has a terrific batting eye and has made easy adjustments when promoted. His glove at second base is improving and already very good. He's learning to play the outfield at the same time he was getting used to Triple-A pitching. And scouts like his personality.
What's not to like? He seems completely legitimate to me. I'd rate Betts as a Grade A- prospect currently, with a Top 20 ranking on the revised hitting prospect list that I'll release in mid-July. This doesn't mean he'll hit .300 right away in the majors and I doubt he develops into a big home run guy, but his OBP ability, pure hitting skills, at least decent pop, polished aggression on the bases, and defensive versatility make him one of the most exciting young players in the baseball universe.