Mookie Betts cementing status as Red Sox's best player

CLEVELAND -- For all the attention paid to David Price's arrival, David Ortiz's long goodbye, Pablo Sandoval's losing battle with both his weight and Travis Shaw over the third-base job, the division of labor in left field and, oh yeah, Hanley Ramirez's move to first base, it appears we have overlooked an important development with the Boston Red Sox.

Mookie Betts is the team's best player.

And it isn't even particularly close.

Betts offered a timely refresher Tuesday. On a bone-chilling, see-your-breath Opening Day at Progressive Field, the 23-year-old leadoff-hitting right fielder unloaded on a sinker from Cleveland Indians ace Corey Kluber in the third inning, sending it knifing through the wind for a two-run home run that gave the Red Sox an early lead. Two innings later, after the Indians tied it against Price, Betts backtracked on Rajai Davis' drive to right field, and when he realized it was sailing over his head, leaped and snared the ball out of the air, robbing a sure-fire extra-base hit.

"Superstar, man. Superstar," Ortiz said after the Sox's 6-2 victory, reminding us of what we had been temporarily overlooking. "He's got that swag. He's got what the game needs right now, you know what I'm saying? You just have to let that kid play and enjoy. You don't see that every day."

With Betts, actually, it happens fairly often. We would label what he did against the Indians a "breakout performance," except it was entirely reminiscent of the Sox's home opener at Fenway Park last year against the Washington Nationals, when Betts homered, stole a home run from Bryce Harper, swiped second base and alertly took third, too, when he realized nobody was covering.

After that game, Harper, who knows something about phenoms, put Betts in a class with budding Chicago Cubs stars Addison Russell and Kris Bryant. Former Red Sox teammate Shane Victorino aimed even higher. After Betts made his major league debut in 2014, Victorino likened him to Pittsburgh Pirates star Andrew McCutchen, who possesses a blend of power and speed that makes him a perennial MVP candidate in the National League.

Nothing that happened last season diminished Betts' standing as a star-in-waiting. He batted .291 with 18 homers, 21 steals and an .820 OPS in his first full big-league season, even finishing 19th in the MVP voting despite playing for a last-place team.

Betts' athleticism, specifically his lightning-fast hands, is always apparent. But it's his recognition of situations within a game and his ability to adapt that separates him.

For instance, in the first inning Tuesday, Betts struck out on a slider after Kluber had fed him four straight sinkers. When he came to the plate in the third inning, Betts knew he would see another slider at some point. But rather than guessing about when it would come, he waited patiently for more sinkers, figuring Kluber believed he could beat him with that pitch.

Sure enough, after Kluber threw the slider for a ball on the first pitch, he came back with the sinker two pitches later.

"He has so much movement on all his pitches, it's tough," Betts said. "You may get one pitch to hit all day. You have to make sure you're ready for it."

The leaping catch was pure athleticism. Betts said he "froze" -- understandable, given the 34-degree temperature reading at game time -- when Davis hit the ball, then recovered in time to snag what would have been a leadoff triple if it had gone over Betts' head.

"To be able to make that play, that's huge," Price said. "That's why he's got Jordans on his feet. He can hang in the air a little longer than everybody else."

Said Betts: "Fortunately enough, I've done enough squats to jump and get it. I jumped a little early, but God gave me the ability to hang in the air some way."

It was just another piece of evidence to support the idea that Betts is already the best player (and still getting better) on a young team that is actively transitioning to life after Ortiz, the slugger who has emerged as a franchise icon since his arrival in 2003.

"Everybody knows what type of player he's going to be in the future," Shaw said. "The sky's the limit for him, and he kind of showed everything, all-around player again (Tuesday). Power, speed, defense, he's got it all. This is who he is. He's a budding superstar."