Thursday January 22nd, 2015

To kick off our fantasy baseball preview, Michael Beller will profile certain players who may not fit as a breakout, sleeper or bust (all of which we'll discuss in our preview), but who will still make a major impact in fantasy baseball this season.

Last year was a nightmare for the Red Sox. World Series champions in 2013, Boston never looked like a team capable of defending their title, spending most of the season below .500. Jon Lester was shipped out of town, Dustin Pedroia had his worst season to date, and youngsters Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley and the since-departed Will Middlebrooks didn't take the steps expected of them. But it's hard for even the most disappointing teams to go through a season without a few bright spots, and that was true for the Red Sox, who may have found their centerfielder of the future in Mookie Betts.

Betts, 22, spent time at three levels last year, essentially dividing his time evenly among Double A, Triple A and the majors, and fantasy owners had to have loved what they saw from him, especially in his 52 games with the Red Sox. Betts slashed .291/.368/.444 with five homers and seven steals in 213 plate appearances, and while we can't just extrapolate his numbers from two months and assume he'd stay on that pace for an entire year, we can at least use those as a ballpark for his expected ceiling. Are you interested in a player with .290-15-100-60-30 potential? I thought so.

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Advanced metrics were a big fan of Betts in 2014, too. He compiled a .361 weighted on-base average (wOBA) and 130 weighted runs created plus (wRC+), with Fangraphs pegging him at 1.9 WAR and Baseball-Reference at 2.1. Remember, too, that WAR is an accumulating stat. The more games a (good) player plays, the higher his WAR will climb.

Betts didn't have enough plate appearances to qualify for the leader boards, but if he did, he'd be rubbing elbows with some pretty nice company. There was one other player in the majors who had the exact same wOBA and wRC+ as Betts: Anthony Rendon, who's coming off the board in the second round of a typical 12-team draft. Other players who had a wOBA in the neighborhood of Betts' last year include Justin Upton (.363), Robinson Cano (.361), Matt Holliday (.360) and Starling Marte (.358). Meanwhile, guys like Josh Donaldson (129), Hunter Pence (123) and Alex Gordon (122) failed to reach Betts in wRC+. The sample may have been small for Betts, but it was impressive.

There's a lot to like in Betts' batted-ball numbers, too. He had a 20.9-percent line-drive rate and 40.5-percent ground-ball rate, which bodes well for his batting average given his speed. His 8.2-percent home run-to-fly ball ratio was a touch below league average, but corresponds to him hitting somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 to 13 homers. When he makes contact, good things happen on a regular basis, and what augurs most positively for his success is that he almost always makes contact.

Betts had a 4.2-percent swinging-strike rate in the majors last year, offering at pitches outside the zone just 20.4 percent of the time, and when he swung at a pitch in the strike zone, he made contact with it 92.5 percent of the time. Betts was always willing to take a walk in the minors, and that carried over to the bigs, as he had a 9.9-percent walk rate in 2014. If he's the regular leadoff man for this team, something that John Farrell has intimated will be the case, he could blow right past the 100-run plateau.

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And therein lies the rub vis-à-vis Betts' fantasy value. Right now, the Red Sox figure to start Hanley Ramirez in leftfield, Rusney Castillo in center and Betts in right. That means Allen Craig, Shane Victorino, Daniel Nava, Bradley and Brock Holt are all either on the bench or in the minors. Craig can also play first, but the Red Sox have Mike Napoli and Pablo Sandoval locking down the corners. Ramirez can sort of play third and short, but Sandoval and Bogaerts are entrenched there. If nothing else, Betts could be part of a huge outfield rotation. But if he struggles early, the team will have the ability to look elsewhere.

Having said that, everything Betts has done up to this point suggests he's ready to be an everyday major leaguer. I'm willing to take the risk that he loses his job to the underwhelming Craig or Victorino, especially at his expected price. Recall that he can also play second base, so he could see some at-bats there in place of Pedroia. Steamer projects him to hit .284/.353/.422 with eight homers, 52 runs and 16 steals in just 89 games. If he earns a regular spot in the lineup, he will provide a monster return on investment.

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