BOSTON -- By no means is it a stretch to say 2013 was a breakout campaign for Red Sox prospect Mookie Betts. The athletic second baseman went from being ranked outside of the SoxProspects.com Top 40 entering the season to now residing at spot No. 10 on our list in a loaded farm system, picking up the site’s Offensive Player and Breakout Player of the Year awards along the way.
If you ask him though, the secret to his success is simple. “Just work,” Betts said at the New Stars for Young Stars fundraiser for the Jimmy Fund on Jan. 11. “Just trying to work hard in the offseason, trying to make things happen.”
Betts was taken out of high school as a raw four-sport athlete in the fifth round of the 2011 draft. He played very little that season, and spent 2012 in extended spring training and Short-Season A Lowell. Though he batted .267/.352/.307 in 71 games that season, he came on strong in the second half after moving from shortstop to second, and many saw him as a having the potential to grow into a plus defender at second with an excellent approach at the plate and good speed on the basepaths.
But the 5-foot-9, 156-pound Betts was considered anything but a power threat at the time. He did not even hit his first professional home run until this past spring with Low-A Greenville. However, that first one came in just his fifth game of the season, and he never looked back, finishing the season with 15 longballs totaled across two levels, while hitting a cool .314/.417/.506 in 127 games.
“He said he didn’t hit any home runs in high school, didn’t hit any home runs in Lowell, and comes out and hits what, 15 this year, total?" said catching prospect Blake Swihart, who got to see seven of those homers firsthand in High-A Salem. "That’s awesome. That’s really finding your swing and finding confidence in your at-bats.”
“I didn't know I could do it,” Betts admitted looking back on his power surge. “But once you do it a couple times, then you're confident and you just stop worrying about it. You just let it happen. That's kind of what happened this year.”
The added power did not hinder his abilities on the basepaths either, as Betts stole 38 bags in 127 games this year after swiping 20 in 71 last season. Perhaps most impressive was that he was caught stealing just four times, while moving up a level mid-season.
Betts is not slow by any means, but also not someone you would consider a burner. He instead uses his strong baseball instincts to get good jumps.
“I don't consider myself really that fast,” Betts acknowledged. “Just getting a good read on the pitchers is huge, whether you're fast or not.”
Though the season was a resounding success individually for Betts, that was not the case for the Greenville Drive team with which he began the season. The Drive went 22-47 in the first half, and were 32-55 when he was promoted on July 9. Such a situation can be a grind mentally, but Betts used it as a learning experience.
“It was tough, but each day is a different day,” said the 21-year-old. “You have to go into each day with a new attitude. Learning was a way of life sometimes [in Greenville] and everything's not going to go your way. You have to just be patient with the process. That really taught me things about life as well as baseball too.”
Earning the promotion to Salem in early July, he seemed to only get better, upping his batting average from .296 to .341, while also improving his slugging percentage. He also helped key a second-half turnaround that led to the Red Sox winning the Carolina League championship. The club went 34-18 with Betts to close out the regular season, then swept through their five playoff games to capture the Mills Cup.
All of this led up to Betts being selected to take part in the Arizona Fall League in October and November, a prestigious league featuring countless top prospects over the years. Each organization can send eight attendees, but only two of those can be players that did not play in Double-A or above the prior season. Betts was one of these selections this year, and needless to say it was a significant challenge for him.
“Definitely,” Betts responded when asked if it was the toughest competition he’s faced. “That was really tough. Getting to see [teams’] number ones and number twos [every day], even deep into the bullpen. It was a great learning [experience] though. I'm really happy I got the chance to go and to see it because I feel like it will be somewhat of an advantage going into this next year.”
In his time out there, he managed to hold his own in a very small sample size, batting .271/.368/.373 with eight steals and one home run across 16 games. Perhaps the biggest honor was being selected to take part in the Fall Stars Game, the annual showcase that features the best prospects from the AFL. These are selected based not necessarily on performance during the fall, but status as a prospect, by scouting and farm directors from every Major League organization.
More importantly, the time spent in Arizona should serve Betts well in the transition to Double-A, where he is projected to begin the 2014 season.
“I wouldn't say I'm nervous, I'm excited about it,” he said on the prospect of playing in Portland. “Hopefully I do make it up [to Double-A], I have no idea. If I was to, then I'd be really excited about it, knowing I'm just one step closer.”
Though he has spent all of his time at second base since moving after 13 games at shortstop early in his time with Lowell, there have been reports this offseason that the organization may expose him to shortstop again in 2014, and perhaps other positions. Betts played mostly shortstop and center field in high school, and is hoping to become more versatile, but said he has not heard from the team yet on their exact plans.
SoxProspects.com director of scouting Ian Cundall thinks Betts looked more natural once moved from short to second, but Betts does have the athleticism for the position. His arm strength would be the main question at short.
Despite all of his success, Betts is ready to “forget” the best season of his baseball life and move on to the next. He knows ultimately that he's still a long way from his goal.
Matt Huegel is managing editor for SoxProspects.com. Follow him on Twitter @MattHuegelSP. SoxProspects.com executive editor Chris Hatfield also contributed reporting to this story.