Oh, it’s a wonderful time of year. For the first time in what feels like an eternity, there is actual real-life non-Hot Stove baseball news. Bask in its glory. In this case, we’re talking about some comments John Farrell made a few days ago, insisting that Shane Victorino will be his starting right fielder as long as he is healthy. With most assuming that job belonged to the phenomenon that is Mookie Betts, there was some predictable outrage in response to these comments. It’s understandable, at least. When you spend the better part of five months making your own team plans, a freak out when things go off plan right away is human nature. Don’t worry, though, it’s not something to get all worked up over.
For one thing, I think people are writing off Victorino’s talent far too quickly, while also possibly overrating Betts’. We are only one year removed from the former being arguably the most valuable player on a championship team, remember. Yes, he was underwhelming when he managed to play in 2014, but it was only over 133 plate appearances. Over the last three years he’s been very slightly above-average offensively, and I think it’s fair to expect that kind of production in 2015. Betts, on the other hand, is already being dubbed the second coming due to a great run through the minors and 213 impressive plate appearances at the major-league level. I’m a big fan of 22-year-old, but it’s important to remember most players struggle a bit in their first full season at the highest level. Betts being around a league-average offensive player would be a very good rookie season. On top of all that, while Betts proved himself to be a good right fielder in 2014, he’s not the elite defensive player that Victorino is. It’s not at all crazy for John Farrell to want to start the experienced veteran in this case, especially considering this is a team that expects to win a championship, not a rebuilding one.
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Even if you’ll grant me all this, you surely are still not comfortable with Betts either rotting away on the bench or in AAA. I get that, and I agree with you. It wouldn’t be great for his development to play once every ten days, and he probably doesn’t need more time facing minor-league pitching. Luckily for him, he is on a team that should provide him with plenty of playing time opportunities. Victorino isn’t exactly a pinnacle of health. Over the last two years, he’s been dealing with a plethora of lower back and leg injuries. Betts will take his spot when he makes his inevitable DL stint(s). The Red Sox will also likely be more willing to give the veteran some days off to keep him fresh and healthy through as much of the season as possible, opening up even more playing time.
It’s not just Victorino who will lose playing time, either. Rusney Castillo is a lot like Betts in the sense that we all got excited over a relatively small sample in 2014. The reality is that he’s adjusting on the fly to a whole new level of baseball after not playing competitively for about a year. Castillo could be someone who winds up needing more seasoning in the minors, or at least some days to clear his head. He almost certainly can’t handle the rigors of 162 games after taking so much time off. He also has reptilians after him, which can't bode well.
Hanley Ramirez is also in the outfield, and is also likely to spend at least one stint on the disabled list this season. He’s averaging 116 games over the last four seasons, dealing with a smorgasbord of ailments in the recent past. Moving from shortstop to left field should be less demanding on his body, but it still appears to be a fool’s errand planning on a healthy Ramirez all year long.
It’s not just the outfielders that can open up playing time for Betts, either. Don’t forget that he is a natural second baseman. Dustin Pedroia is not going to be giving up his starting role any time soon, but he’s also dealt with injuries in the past, and could spend some time on the disabled list and/or need rest in 2015. To put it simply, there are still tons of avenues towards playing time for Betts regardless of who is named the starting right fielder.
There is also the trade possibilities that need to be kept in mind. We are still in a situation where the Red Sox are going to have to deal one of their outfielders. One of the most likely men to go was Victorino, and this works with that line of thought. For one thing, if you’re planning on trading someone, you’re not going to lower his value through the media. By declaring him a bench player, you’d be doing just that. On top of that, his health is the biggest hinderance to his value, so the team needs to give him a chance to show he is feeling good before they make any attempt to trade him. It’s even possible that they want to wait until mid-April or May to pull the trigger on the deal, meaning they could opt to stash Betts in AAA for a few weeks while building Victorino’s value. That’s not an ideal situation, but this lineup should be good enough for that to not be at all worrisome.
None of that is even the biggest reason not to freak out. Really, the most important thing to remember is that it’s not even March yet! There are so many things that can and will happen between now and Opening Day that we may be laughing about this by April 1.
Even if it doesn’t work itself out, however, there is plenty of reason to be confident Betts getting plenty of playing time. He can realistically play four different positions, and the starters at each of those positions have at least one question mark around them. Shane Victorino is the better option in right to start the year, by talent level as well as for trade reasons, but don’t worry, it won’t be detrimental to Mookie Betts’ or the team’s futures.