One of the hottest prospects in baseball is headed to the major leagues.
On Saturday, the Boston Red Sox announced that they were calling up infielder/outfielder Mookie Betts from Triple-A Pawtucket. The 21-year-old Betts, who began the season with Double-A Portland, gets the callup after hitting a scorching .322/.425/.444 in 23 games for the PawSox, as the Red Sox try to find a spark for an offense that has gone ice cold in the month of June.
Betts came into the season ranked fifth on MLB.com's list of Boston's top prospects and eighth by Baseball Prospectus. A fifth-round high-school pick in the 2011 draft, Betts put up an uninspiring .267/.352/.307 line in 2012, but burst onto the scene in 2013 by slashing .314/.417/.506 across two levels of A-ball. He followed up on that breakout season by hitting a ridiculous .355/.443/.551 in his first taste of Double-A, including a 66-game on-base streak he had started back in 2013, earning the bump to Triple-A. Now, after just three seasons in Boston's system, the Tennessee native will get his first shot at the bigs.
Though Betts was drafted as an infielder and played primarily second base in the minors, that position is filled long-term in Boston by Dustin Pedroia. As such, the Red Sox shifted Betts to the outfield back in May in order to increase his positional flexibility and also provide Boston a long-term option in the outfield, an area has been a massive problem for the Red Sox so far this season. A variety of leg and back injuries have limited Shane Victorino, Boston's regular right fielder, to just 21 games this season. Victorino was set to return to Boston's lineup following a stint on the disabled list due to a back injury, but the team announced on Friday that his rehab had been shut down indefinitely following a setback. There's currently no timetable for his return.
In Victorino's absence, the Red Sox rotated Daniel Nava, Jonny Gomes and Grady Sizemore in right field, but got little to no production from the trio. Nava hit a mere .149 before being sent down to Triple-A at the end of April. Since being recalled in late May, he's been better, with a .738 OPS in 72 plate appearances, but his inability to hit left-handers and his shaky defense in right have limited him to part-time duty. Sizemore, meanwhile, scuffled to a .224/.285/.422 line in 295 plate appearances before being designated for assignment on June 17. Since June 18, the team's starting right fielder has been utility infielder Brock Holt, who has emerged as a viable bat atop the lineup with a .323/.366/.450 line. Even with Holt, however, Red Sox right fielders have posted a collective .599 OPS this season, better only than the Cubs (.557).
It's not just right field where the Red Sox are struggling, however. Center field has also been a big problem spot offensively, where former top prospect Jackie Bradley Jr. has mustered just a .587 OPS in 264 plate appearances. In left, Gomes has drawn most of the team's starts, but his struggles against right-handed pitching (.513 OPS against this year, .724 career) make him an untenable regular option there.
With Betts in the fold, Boston could likely establish platoons in left and right, with Gomes partnering with Nava in the former and the right-handed Betts sharing time with the left-handed Holt in the latter. Betts could also spell Bradley in center against left-handers, though the left-handed Bradley has posted better numbers against southpaws than right-handers so far this year.
Regardless of how the Red Sox use Betts, his high-OBP bat and ability to make solid contact would be welcome for a lineup that has sputtered badly this season. Boston's 3.76 runs per game are fifth-worst in baseball, and the team's .367 slugging percentage is tied with St. Louis for MLB's third-lowest mark. It's been even worse since the start of June, with the Red Sox averaging only 2.9 runs per game and posting a team OPS of .642. That includes a .297 OBP, the worst percentage in the American League over the last 28 days.
It's unlikely that Betts is the key to turning around Boston's offense, but the team will take any opportunity it can get to bolster the lineup. After Friday night's dispiriting 6-0 loss to New York — Boston's sixth defeat in eight games against the Yankees — the Red Sox are now a season-worst eight games under .500 and eight back of Toronto in the AL East. And it doesn't get any easier Saturday, when Boston faces Masahiro Tanaka, who leads the American League in ERA.