BOSTON (CBS) — After ascending to the majors last season, Red Sox outfielder Mookie Betts has had quite the offseason.
The 2011 fifth-round draft pick quietly rose through the Red Sox system last season, playing 99 games between Double-A Portland and Triple-A Pawtucket. He put up solid numbers in both of those stops, combining for a .346 batting average and .431 OBP with 30 doubles and 87 runs scored. A second baseman by trade, he was called up by Boston in late June in the hopes he could provide a jolt to a stagnant outfield.
He made his debut on June 29, the finale of a three-game set with the New York Yankees. On Sunday Night Baseball, with most of the country watching, Betts went 1-for-3 with a run scored while playing right field in a 8-5 Boston win.
He’d go on to play 52 games with the Red Sox, putting up solid numbers as the team limped to a 71-91 record. He hit .291 with a .368 OBP, clubbing 12 doubles while scoring 34 runs in various spots in the lineup. He hit .317 in September with 11 multi-hit games, including his first three-hit game late in the month in a win over the Tampa Bay Rays.
Betts provided some excitement that Red Sox fans sorely needed in a young player, giving some hope that Boston had found a gem who would contribute for years to come.
But as he prepares for the 2015 season, trade rumors and depth chart discussions have surrounded Betts. With no ace at the front of their rotation, Boston has been mentioned in trade rumors for Philadelphia Phillies left-hander Cole Hamels. Along with catching phenom Blake Swihart, Betts has been the cornerstone of those rumors. And if he remains in Boston, manager John Farrell has already said that veteran Shane Victorino will be their starting right fielder if he is healthy to begin the season.
That’s a lot for any player to deal with, let alone a 22-year-old. But Betts is handling it all in stride, just happy to have the opportunity to compete for a job.
“I still have to go prepare. You never know what is going to happen and you never know what they’re going to decide. I’m more than happy to sit behind Vic, with all his Gold Glove and accolades,” Betts told WBZ-TV’s Dan Roche. “There is no debate about it, Victorino is Victorino. That’s why he’s been around for so long.”
Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington has downplayed any of the trade rumors, and said that the team would like Betts to be a part of Boston’s future.
“We think he is an exceptionally talented young player who does a lot of things well. He has obviously shown an ability to make adjustments quickly,” Cherington said earlier this week. “I think he has a chance to help us win games for a long time. That’s the kind of player we want on our side. I won’t get into the whole untouchable, touchable thing. I’m not even sure what that means. We know what he can be, and we expect him to be here.”
Betts can’t help but notice the good vibe surrounding the Red Sox despite their last place finish in 2014. With talented hitters Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez added to the heart of the order with David Ortiz, he is soaking in all he can as he watches the sluggers prepare.
And even though there is a plethora of outfielders on the roster and the starting right field job is no longer his (for the moment), Betts welcomes the competition.
“Even though people say there are a whole bunch of competitions going on, I think it’s a good thing. We push each other and we want each other to get better,” he said. “We feel as if any one of us can be the starting nine. We have depth throughout the whole organization, and I feel like that’s a good thing.”
Betts played nearly every sport growing up, hitting either the baseball or football field and basketball court depending on the season. But when he hit high school, he realized he was too small to continue his hoops career, and his mother wouldn’t let him play football. His decision was all but made, but he’s happy with the way it turned out.
“Baseball was the only option, and it ended up working out pretty well.”
Betts and his family also bowl often in the offseason, though he’s never tried candlepin bowling — famous around New England. It should come as no surprise that’s something he wants to try, open to putting yet another challenge on his plate.
The future may be uncertain for Betts, both in the short-term and long-term, but for right now, he’s just happy to be where he is: Fort Myers, competing for a job on the Boston Red Sox.
“Not many people get this opportunity, so I need to embrace it. Whether I’m playing or not playing, I’m here – that’s the main thing,” he said. “I have to embrace that.”
As long as he embraces his role, no matter what it is, Red Sox fans will continue to return the favor with Betts.