MLB.com Columnist

Anthony Castrovince

Betts on verge of being something special

Young outfielder soon will be the face of the Red Sox

Betts on verge of being something special

CLEVELAND -- This column, for the record, was going to be written no matter what Mookie Betts did on Opening Day or in this Opening Week. If he took the collar or misplayed a ball, Betts' potential to ascend to superstardom, his ability to shine even in a year in which David Ortiz is destined to absorb so much of the limelight, was something that demanded to be touted.

And then, well, Betts made it easy. He had an outstanding opener. Betts hit a rocket two-run shot off 2014 American League Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber -- in 34-degree conditions, no less. He lined a single to the opposite field. Betts put his Air Jordan cleats to proper use with a leaping catch to rob Rajai Davis of extra bases.

Betts' performance wasn't nearly as anticipated as David Price's Boston debut or as celebrated as Big Papi's final Opening Day blast, but it was every bit as essential in the Red Sox starting out 1-0.

Betts' leaping grab

"He's special," Price said. "He's part of that young core that made me so excited to join this team."

Betts is 23. There's no reliable gauge to assess whether he's a household name to people outside Boston, but in a baseball world understandably absorbed with the unusually precocious production of Mike Trout and Bryce Harper and Carlos Correa and Manny Machado and the Cubs' kids, bet on the under. Betts is still flying somewhat under the radar, but days like Tuesday serve as evidence that his relative anonymity won't last much longer.

"People haven't really caught onto him yet," Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said. "They will."

Of course, not everybody is oblivious to what Betts brings to the table. The statheads have looked past his diminutive stature and praised his pure potential for several years, and Betts' major second-half strides in aggressiveness last season allowed him to take better advantage of the hard contact he was making and had some projections downright bullish on his brilliance going into 2016.

To wit, these were Dan Szymborski's 2016 ZiPS projections, available at FanGraphs.com, for the Major League position player leaders in Wins Above Replacement:

Trout, 8.5
Harper, 6.7
Josh Donaldson, 6.3
Machado 6.0
Buster Posey, 5.8
Andrew McCutchen, 5.6
Betts 5.4
Kris Bryant, 5.3
Paul Goldschmidt 4.8
Correa, 4.7

Heady company, that. Generally speaking, you tend to want to be included in lists that include five recent MVP Award winners.

Betts has earned such optimism, and not just because he had a nice day in Progressive Field's bitter cold. There is an undeniable ascendance taking place here. Any thought that Betts might be, at best, a slight-sized slap hitter has been profoundly doused by his unusually electric bat speed, which has aided his power production.

In the opener, Betts turned on a Kluber sinker that started out away before drifting middle-in, and Betts' lightning-quick hands allowed him to smack the ball out to the left-center-field bleachers at a Statcast-measured speed of 107 mph, a personal-best exit velocity.

Asked about his bat speed, Betts smiled.

"It's all I've got," he said. "I'm 5-foot-9, 180 pounds. I don't have much else to work with, so I just try to use my bat speed and get the most out of what I've got."

Betts did just that as 2015 rolled along. You might not have realized he ranked 16th in the Majors with 68 extra-base hits last season, just behind Edwin Encarnacion (70) and just ahead of Jose Abreu, Nelson Cruz and Carlos Gonzalez (67 each).

Not much went right for the Red Sox last year. Betts did. At the end of a lost season, he contributed an .857 OPS in August and a .998 OPS in September/October. And as the Red Sox slowly take on a new identity -- with Big Papi graduating to retirement and Dustin Pedroia entering age territory traditionally unkind to second basemen -- it's not outlandish to suggest Betts could soon be the face of this lineup.

"I wouldn't have said I knew this last year, but his leadership capabilities really stand out," Dombrowski said. "I didn't see that immediately when I got here [last August], but, over time and being around him this winter at our winter fest and then in Spring Training, I can see he's a quality individual with those capabilities.

"We have sort of an unusual club. Veteran players and some young players that are very good. But when David retires, Pedey's a leader, David Price is a leader, Craig Kimbrel is a leader. But it's really good to have a young guy like [Betts] that can step up and be that individual. He also has the advantage of being around guys like David and Pedey and learning from them."

Ortiz has marveled at Betts' uncanny ability to apply adjustments or instruction instantaneously. That speaks to how Betts was able to morph from a well-regarded middle-infield prospect to an impact defender in the outfield virtually overnight.

"I'm playing for the Red Sox, and I don't think there's anybody out here who's going to intentionally hurt you," Betts said. "So you listen to information, and you kind of filter what you like and take out what you don't. Ortiz has taught me to trust myself. I think a lot of times you start to second-guess yourself, especially as a young player, but you've got to have confidence that everything will be all right."

Betts has every reason to be confident right now. And the rest of us have every reason to be confident that if he's not already a household name outside Red Sox Nation, he will be before long.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.