BOSTON -- How can a player who is not even assured of a starting position this season for the Boston Red Sox rank as potentially their most valuable player entering spring training? That's the question revolving around Mookie Betts, the 22-year-old outfielder who is projected by Baseball Prospectus to have the highest WAR (wins above replacement player) of any Red Sox position player in 2015.
WAR, as calculated by Baseball Prospectus, is an attempt to determine a player's total value, factoring in such components as playing time, position, batting, baserunning and defense for position players, and role, innings pitched and quality of performance for pitchers.
In the latest ratings by Baseball Prospectus, Betts is assigned a WAR of 3.6, a tick ahead of Dustin Pedroia, even though he comes into camp part of a crowded outfield picture in which newcomer Hanley Ramirez was signed to play left field, Rusney Castillo was imported from Cuba to play center field, and Shane Victorino, who has a year and $13 million left on his contract, aims to reclaim right field after undergoing back surgery last season.
Betts had a sensational 2014, racing through stints in Double A and Triple A, converting from second baseman to outfielder, and making an immediate impact on the major league level, posting a .291/.368/.444 /.812 stat line with 18 extra-base hits in 213 plate appearances. His performance eclipsed that of more highly regarded prospects coming into the season in Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley Jr., and marked him as clearly an important piece of the Red Sox's future.
But by BP's reckoning, Betts's future is now, despite the presence of Victorino, Allen Craig and Daniel Nava in the outfield mix. Craig is an established big league hitter looking to rebound from a injury and Nava, a useful contributor, comes into camp out of options, meaning he cannot be sent back to the minors without clearing waivers first. The website, which is highly regarded for its statistical analysis, bases its projections on a scenario in which Betts gets nearly 470 plate appearances in right field, with another roughly 120 plate appearances in center.
Betts projects to bat leadoff if he indeed is an everyday player, and would play a big part in what BP sees as a major revival by the team's offense. Boston led the majors in runs scored in 2013, fell to 18th last season, and projects to lead the majors again in 2015 as the only team to score 800 or more runs, according to BP. That's why the Sox are projected by the site to win the AL East with an 87-75 record, a game ahead of the Tampa Bay Rays.
The addition of Ramirez and Sandoval, arguably the two best hitters in free agency, should guarantee that the Sox will improve upon the 3.91 runs per game they scored in 2014. Pedroia and Mike Napoli also begin the season fully healthy, Bogaerts finished a challenging rookie season on the upswing, 27-year-old Castillo is in his athletic prime, and 39-year-old David Ortiz has yet to make any concession to age. But if you were already bullish on Betts, BP is saying you have every reason to feel that way.
Here are the WAR projections on each Red Sox position player from BP. The comments are mine.
These numbers are strictly a function of playing time. Swihart, ranked as the team's No. 1 prospect, is expected to spend most of the season in Triple-A Pawtucket. Cecchini got a taste of the big leagues last season, but with Sandoval signed to play third base for the foreseeable future, Cecchini may be looking at a position change or change of address.
Jackie Bradley Jr., 0.2
Last season, Bradley was the best defensive outfielder the Sox have had in nearly four decades, but he will be given a chance to figure out his offensive deficiencies in Pawtucket, at least to start the season. If he can't break into Boston's outfield, there will be a team willing to bet on his glove and hope for more from the bat.
Ryan Hanigan, 0.4
The native of Andover, Massachusetts, was acquired to back up Christian Vazquez behind the plate, and at 34 brings a strong set of defensive skills to the position, as pitch framer, game caller and thrower. Hanigan's offense should improve after a season in which he had hamstring and oblique injuries.
Christian Vazquez, 0.5
Vazquez is one-half of what may turn into one of the great position battles in recent Sox history, vying with hot prospect Swihart to become the team's everyday catcher for years to come. Vazquez blew away everyone last season with his Molina-like arm and defense, and exhibited impressive maturity. Whether he will hit enough to hold off Swihart is the only question.
Daniel Nava, Allen Craig, 0.5
Nava and Craig give the Sox redundancy as combination outfielders-first basemen who would seem to have little chance of winning significant playing time. Under other circumstances, they project as a decent platoon, with Craig facing lefties and the switch-hitting Nava righties. But playing time will be at a premium.
Brock Holt, 0.8
It's hard to see Holt coming anywhere near the 449 at-bats he collected last season, when he played seven positions and settled into the leadoff role until a concussion sidelined him in September. His versatility, however, would seem to assure him a spot on the 25-man roster, especially since he can play a serviceable shortstop.
Shane Victorino, 1.1
In 2013, Victorino posted a 5.8 WAR for the Sox, the highest of his career, playing Gold Glove defense, hitting 15 homers, stealing 21 bases and posting an .802 OPS, while bringing hyper-intensity to the field each day. But he's 34 and coming off back surgery, and while he vows he'll reclaim his everyday gig, the odds are stacked against him. But don't be shocked if he pulls it off.
Xander Bogaerts, 2.2
Bogaerts fell far short of the second coming of Nomar as a rookie, enduring hellacious slumps, playing erratically afield and appearing somewhat unhinged when Stephen Drew's return forced a shift from short to third. But his 41 extra-base hits ranked second on the team to Ortiz, he hit .310 in the last month of the season, and he just turned 22. With the hype machine on a lower setting, Bogaerts still can show what all the fuss was about.
Pablo Sandoval, 2.5
The best thing that can happen to Sandoval is that folks understand that he only resembles Big Papi in the postseason (he had a record 26 hits in last year's playoffs), not April to October. Panda will play better defense than those put off by his unsculpted physique expect, but he hasn't come close to his breakout 2011 (.909 OPS) since. He had a down year against lefties last season (.199); the Monster should help.
Mike Napoli, 2.8
On top of all the other physical issues that Napoli dealt with last season (dislocated finger, knee, back, toe, hip injuries), we discovered this winter that he hadn't had a good night's sleep in eight years, which had nothing to do with his fondness for the boulevard. Napoli had jaw surgery to address sleep apnea, a procedure that reshaped his face and spiked his energy. A return to past slugging form should be in the offing.
David Ortiz, 3.1
Because he serves as a DH and doesn't use a glove, Ortiz's WAR takes a hit, but he bashed 35 home runs last season and at 39 remains the most dangerous hitter in the lineup. Only three players 39 or older have hit 35 or more home runs in a season: Barry Bonds (45), Hank Aaron (40) and Steve Finley (36), all at 39. But age has yet to act as a deterrent for Papi.
Hanley Ramirez, 3.4
There are obvious reasons why there are questions around Hanley Ramirez. The Dodgers made no attempt to keep him, he was viewed as a clubhouse problem in some quarters, he has trouble staying healthy, and he has never played the outfield as a pro. But he remains a force at the plate, one John Farrell already foresees hitting behind Ortiz in the cleanup spot.
Rusney Castillo, 3.5
Castillo got the introductions out of the way late last summer with a whirlwind trip through the team's system that culminated with his arrival in Boston. He spent additional time honing his game in Arizona and Puerto Rico, where he burnished his reputation as a center fielder who can impact a game on both sides of the ball. He may not have Yasiel Puig's star quality, but at 27, he looks like a dependable everyday big leaguer.
Dustin Pedroia, 3.5
You could do worse than predict that Pedroia is the Sox player most likely to have a huge season in 2015. After dealing with thumb and wrist injuries over the past two seasons, Pedroia said his left hand is finally healthy and his strength is back. His Gold Glove defense has shown no slippage, and that four-year skid in OPS could come to an abrupt end. As tough, and as defiant, as they come.
Mookie Betts, 3.6
You would think Sox fans would be cautious about anointing a rookie a star before his time, especially after the struggles of Bogaerts and Bradley, but Betts' impressive debut last summer has folks believing that good times will continue in 2015. Few players mark progress in a straight line, but that's the expectation for Mookie -- and it's not just the fans.