As second baseman Mookie Betts broke out to become the hottest prospect in the Boston Red Sox organization and, actually, in all of minor league baseball, many Red Sox followers did what they do best.
They fretted. They worried. They wondered: Where will the Red Sox put Betts?
Boston is not normally into long-term contracts, but it does have a second baseman signed through the 2021 season.
Dustin Pedroia is not going anywhere. Other infield spots are manned by young players (Xander Bogaerts and Will Middlebrooks).
But as the tweets, blogs and stories kept appearing about Betts and his .430 average through April, it became apparent that the 21-year-old has big league potential. Several fans responded with glee over Betts, but others predicted he would be trade bait because Boston has no position to place him.
Yeah, that makes sense. A player hits .400 and you make plans to ship him out.
With Betts’ breakout and other prospects performing well, it’s time to think ahead. Step inside Ben Cherington’s shoes and play general manager for a moment. Cherington may have some tough decisions in the seasons to come, figuring out which veterans to let walk away and which prospects are ready for the major leagues.
And by “ready,” we mean contribute to the contender.
Betts is not the only one who could be on a fast track – and we need to remind you that he’s played only a month in Double-A – but he provides one of the tougher challenges, so let’s start with him.
Where to put Mookie?
As pointed out, the infield is blocked. Betts played some center field in high school, but Jackie Bradley Jr. just took the job at Fenway and, with his magical reads, he appears settled for a long time.
Don’t know if Betts has the arm for right field.
That leaves …
• Left field: Jonny Gomes, 33, and Grady Sizemore, 31, are under contract through this year. If Sizemore has a productive season, he might be re-signed. Gomes? Not so sure.
Plus there is Daniel Nava, 31, rediscovering his stroke down in Pawtucket. He is years away from free agency.
But Betts may force a promotion. If he keeps his progression – did we mention his short time in Double-A – he may get a taste of the majors by the end of the year or next, and be a regular by 2016.
• Catching: Seems like a clear-cut decision. A.J. Pierzynski, 36, and Davis Ross, 37, are in the last year of their contracts. Christian Vazquez, 23, seems to be heir to the job.
Then there is Blake Swihart, 22, in Portland. Now in Double-A, Swihart is still batting well (.316) and throwing people out.
Ryan Lavarnway, technically the No. 3 catcher right now, is playing first base more than catching in Pawtucket.
Next year, Boston could try to re-sign Ross to serve as a mentor to Vazquez, who has yet to play in the majors (which should change this year). Dan Butler remains an emergency backup.
Swihart could move to Triple-A in 2015 and join Vazquez in Boston the next season.
• First base: Mike Napoli, 32, is signed through next season. He brings power and on-base ability that Boston craves. So he may be there for a while. For youthful options, you can consider Middlebrooks, Garin Cecchini and Travis Shaw. Of those three, only Shaw is playing first base right now.
Middlebrooks, 25, is starting at third and he is solid enough defensively. He might only be moved to make room for Bogaerts (who replaced Middlebrooks in the 2013 postseason) if Boston decides it has a better defensive option at short.
Cecchini, 23, is also a third baseman, in Pawtucket, and still hitting for average (.301) and getting on base (.392 OBP). His defense is said to be coming along, but if there is a logjam at third, then maybe he goes to first. Baseball America speculated that Cecchini could end up in left field.
Shaw, 24, is the least known of the group but perhaps the best fielder at first. He slumped last year, but is getting back on track in Portland (batting .380 the past two weeks with four home runs).
• Shortstop: Bogaerts, 21, has made some mistakes at the position but his coaches are saying they are typical for this early in his rookie season. Bogaerts may work out fine there but if he needs to switch positions, the Red Sox have a better defensive option.
Deven Marrero, 23, is considered every bit as good a shortstop as Jose Iglesias and that is high praise. Not known for his bat, Marrero is also hitting well (.304) in Portland.
• Third base: Middlebrooks is the man, unless Boston wants Bogaerts there, or if Cecchini somehow becomes a more attractive option.
• Center field: Bradley, 24, has the job for a while – unless he’s needed in right field.
• Right field: Shane Victorino, 33, is signed through next year. Fenway features the toughest right field, and Victorino is one of the few who can play it superbly. Bradley could be another.
In Pawtucket, Bryce Brentz, 25, is showing the power (four homers) that Boston hopes makes him a threat in the majors. Not sure if he can play right in Fenway. In Triple-A, Brentz is splitting his time between left and right.
In the pipleline is Manuel Margot, 19, already in low Class A Greenville. Touted as a five-tool player, Margot could play center or right for Boston but is a few years away, if he makes it.
• Pitching: The guesswork is multiplied here. Jake Peavy’s contract ends this year, John Lackey’s in 2015. Boston has options on Clay Buchholz through 2017, and Felix Doubront does not hit free agency until at least 2017.
If Boston manages to re-sign Jon Lester, here is a possible pitching staff in 2016: Lester, Buchholz, Doubront, Brandon Workman, Allen Webster, Ruby De La Rosa, Matt Barnes, Anthony Ranaudo, Henry Owens, Drake Britton, Junichi Tazawa and Craig Breslow.
Obviously, trades, injuries and performance will factor into the future. But the Red Sox have depth. Some of those young arms that are starting now may become stellar relievers.
While Cherington figures it out, Red Sox fans wonder where he will fit in all the talent.
Such a problem to have.
Kevin Thomas can be reached at 791-6411 or at: