As the Boston Red Sox continue to slog along, seven games under .500 after Sunday's extra-innings loss to the Cleveland Indians, it's very easy to cast a longing eye at the minor leagues and wonder if the answer to Boston's prayers resides down there.
The biggest story in Boston's farm system so far this season has been the play of Mookie Betts. The former fifth-round pick began to get his due this past offseason as a solid prospect, but he has since vaulted up the charts to become one of the best prospects in the game after a sizzling start to his season.
Betts started the season by picking up where he left off in 2013, getting on base in every game through mid-May, and he appeared on the verge of setting the minor league record for consecutive games on base.
He ended up with 66 straight games on base, five short of the record, as Kevin Thomas of the Portland Press Herald relates. The record of 71 games is jointly held by (coincidentally enough) two ex-Sea Dogs in Kevin Youkilis and Kevin Millar. But if you included the postseason, Betts reached in 71 straight as well.
After laying waste to Double-A with an overall line of .355/.443/.551 in 253 plate appearances, Betts was promoted to Triple-A Pawtucket. He was also asked to learn a new position.
A second baseman by trade, Betts shifted to center field a few games before his promotion and has been manning that spot for Pawtucket since his arrival. With Dustin Pedroia firmly locked into second base at the major league level and rookie center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. struggling with the bat, a shift to center made sense for Betts.
Betts' bat has slowed down in Triple-A, but he's still ably equipping himself with a .286/.388/.429 line. That's good enough to make people wonder if it's time for the Red Sox to jettison Bradley and call up Betts.
Not so fast.
Asking Betts to be the savior of the Red Sox is not conducive to both the team and Betts' development. Not only do Boston's issues run deeper than Betts, it's not clear that replacing Bradley would be the best thing to help the team win.
Asking Betts to save the defending world champions' season is a lot to ask. Not only would Betts be trying to produce enough to be worthy of a major league spot upon promotion, he would be looked at as the catalyst to turn Boston's season around.
But it isn't just one person who needs to turn things around for the Red Sox to start winning.
The Red Sox rank 21st in runs scored, batting average and slugging percentage. For these numbers to change, the Sox need to get more production out of Mike Napoli, Dustin Pedroia and Shane Victorino, to name a few. Further, Boston's outfield problems go a lot deeper than Jackie Bradley Jr. and his struggles at the plate. (And we haven't even mentioned the rotation yet, which has been wildly inconsistent.)
Grady Sizemore, in the major leagues for the first time since 2011, has a .612 OPS. Daniel Nava, who lengthened the lineup in a career season last year, has only just started to turn things around by hitting .455 since June 7 (not including an 0-for-2 with three walks in Sunday's game). Shane Victorino has played in just 21 of a possible 69 games thus far. Bench outfielders Mike Carp and Jonny Gomes simply haven't been productive against right-handed hitting.
Bradley isn't the problem in the outfield; in fact, he's been the most productive outfielder for Boston. Thanks to his impeccable defense, his 0.6 WAR (per Baseball-Reference.com) easily outpaces the other regular outfielders, with Victorino's 0.3 WAR resting in second place. Right now, Boston is playing Brock Holt, a career infielder, in the outfield. That's how drastic their outfield problems have become.
If Bradley isn't the problem, how will replacing Bradley with Betts improve matters?
Sure, Bradley's been lost at the plate much of the year, and it's a lot easier to point fingers at someone whose offensive contributions are so starkly obvious given easy ways (both statistical and visual) to quantify offensive value. But his defense has more than made up for it.
For the Red Sox to get better, the answer isn't asking a 21-year-old with 11 games above Double-A to come in and replace the best-producing outfielder thus far.
Right now, Boston needs to be focused on getting Victorino back in the lineup and producing. The team also needs Clay Buchholz and Felix Doubront to return from injury and contribute. Betts needs to cut his teeth in Triple-A against tougher and older competition while gaining experience in center field.
All these steps will have a far greater impact on turning Boston's season around. It would me a mistake to hurriedly rush Betts to the majors and heap all the pressure that comes along with being the savior of the Boston Red Sox onto Betts' diminutive shoulders.
Betts will eventually make an impact on the Red Sox. The time is just not now.
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