BOSTON -- With so much focus on the Red Sox’s decision to option center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. to Triple-A Pawtucket on Monday, fellow rookie outfielder Mookie Betts now has an opportunity to prove his worth at the big league level.
A natural infielder, the Red Sox converted the 21-year-old into an outfielder this season, and he’s showing he can handle the position. Like any other prospect, he’ll have a learning curve, but he’s taking advantage of his three stints with the Red Sox this season.
With Bradley focusing on his offense at Triple-A, Betts will now get plenty of chances in the majors, and Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington believes the rookie can handle the position change and have an impact in the outfield.
“Absolutely, he has the potential,” Cherington said. “He’s a terrific athlete. He’s performed at a high level offensively at the minor league level. He’s already shown progress defensively in the outfield, even compared to when he was here the first time. With someone who has this kind of athleticism and overall instincts for the game, you’d expect the defensive side of it will continue to improve and that learning curve would be fairly quick for him.
“We know what he’s capable of offensively. It’s an opportunity for him to get some major league at-bats for the rest of this year and continue to build on what he’s already done this year. We’re not making any proclamations about anything other than these are young players we’re trying to put in a position to improve and get better.”
With Yoenis Cespedes, Bradley, Shane Victorino, Allen Craig, Daniel Nava, Brock Holt and Betts all on the books, outfield depth is something the Red Sox will have plenty of in 2015. Even though the Sox’s focus is already on 2015, Cherington understands it’s a long time before the Opening Day roster is set.
When Betts arrived Monday for his third stint with the Red Sox this season, he was quickly penciled into the lineup in center field and batting eighth.
“We were focused on trying to figure out the right thing to do with Jackie, and then once we got to that decision, we felt like, ''Well, it’s important for both of them to play center field, so there’s opportunity now for some at-bats at the major league level, so let’s give Mookie that opportunity.'”
In the past two games, Betts is 2-for-7 with a double and a walk. Defensively, he’s been sound, too.
During a 4-3 loss to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim on Tuesday night at Fenway Park, Betts saw plenty of action in center field. In the top of the second inning, he turned in a stellar defensive play. With one out and one runner on, the Angels’ David Freese crushed a ball to deep center field. Betts sprinted into the triangle and robbed Freese of a possible two-run homer by reaching over the wall and making the catch before the ball landed into the Sox’s bullpen.
“He hit it, and my mind told me to just go get it and I happened to catch it,” he said.
Betts then easily doubled up at first base the Angels’ Erick Aybar, who was running on contact, thinking the ball would drop in.
Freese had his revenge in the top of the fourth inning, however, with a triple to center field. Betts prematurely dove for the ball, and it got by him and rolled all the way to the wall for a three-base hit. With one out in the inning, Red Sox starter Allen Webster left the runner stranded at third base.
“Pretty much, I just gotta get a better read,” Betts said. “But Webby picked me up, so I’m not too worried about it.”
Farrell wasn’t either.
“Looks like he got a little bit of a late read on Freese’s ball, the sinking line drive,” the manager said. “Aggressive, tried to make a diving catch, gets by him for the triple. Webby picked him up by leaving the runner stranded. He tracks a ball well into deep right-center field, takes a home run away that turns into a [double play]. I thought overall he did a solid job in center.”
Part of the learning process at the big league level will be knowing when to be aggressive and when to make the smart play.
“That’s the hard part,” he said. “That’s the part I’m still learning. Yeah, I have no true answer to that.
“It’s a process. I’ve learned it’s a process. You’re going to have your good and your bad, some days are better than others, so go get ‘em tomorrow.”
With two outs and the game tied at 3-3 in the top of the ninth inning, the Angels' Brennan Boesch crushed a ball off Red Sox closer Koji Uehara and drove it to the deepest part of the field. It appeared Betts started late on the ball, but he had a long way to go, as the ball dropped in at the base of the wall at the 420 marker.
“He hit it a long way,” Betts said. “I tried to do get it, I couldn’t get to it.”
Boesch later scored the would-be game-winning run on Chris Iannetta’s RBI double for a 4-3 win.
Betts is confident in his ability to perform at the major league level, both at the plate and in center field.
“I wouldn’t say I’m fully comfortable, but I wouldn’t say I’m timid out there, either,” Betts said. “I still have a lot of things to learn, but I’ve learned a lot along the way.”
From now until the end of the season, he’ll have that opportunity to learn more in hopes of improving. With Bradley back in the minors to hone his offensive skills, Betts’ playing time with the Red Sox will be an invaluable experience.
“I think it’ll be great for the long run,” he said. “I haven’t been an outfielder for a long time, and I think these things will be good for me.”
He added, “Being an infielder my whole life, then moving to the outfield and playing on the biggest stage is a big adjustment, but I think I can handle it.”