Red Sox need to keep Mookie Betts happy before arbitration

The Boston Red Sox need to keep that big smile on Mookie Betts‘ face by paying him big money before he reaches his arbitration year.

Christopher Smith of MassLive.com makes a great comparison between Betts and Mike Trout, the 2016 American League Most Valuable Player Award winner. Smith stated that, while Trout won two awards and finished second for the A.L. MVP in his rookie 2012 season, “as a pre-salary arbitration player though, he had no real leverage in negotiating his 2013 salary. The Angels decided to pay him only $510,000, which at the time was just $20,000 over the league minimum.”

Imagine, knowing what the baseball world knows now, paying someone like Trout a tad over the league minimum after he just gave his team an MVP-like performance? He did the same thing in 2013, dictating through his play a pre-arbitration record deal “of $1 million for the 2014 season. Trout and the [Los Angeles] Angels then agreed on a six-year, $144.5-million extension about a month later.”

Betts, arguably, had a better season than Trout did in 2016, even if Trout was voted the MVP. Betts earned second place for the award, but he was number one in the hearts of Red Sox Nation all season long.

Salary arbitration comes to Betts in 2018, with free agency looming in 2020. Do the Red Sox honestly need to wait to see if Betts’ quality has been a fluke?

In 2014, the native of Nashville, Tennessee debuted with a .291 batting average, with five home runs and 18 RBIs, in just 52 games for the Red Sox. He matched that average in 2015, but he also produced 18 home runs and 77 RBIs in 145 games, beating out Rusney Castillo for the starting job in center field.

Oct 10, 2016; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Red Sox right fielder Mookie Betts (50) celebrates at second base after doubling at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Betting on Betts to get even better in 2016 proved to be a sure thing, as the 24-year-old grew stronger and smarter at the plate. Betts hit a slash line of .318/.363/.534 and produced 31 home runs and 113 RBIs. His quick bat speed and keen determination convinced Red Sox manager John Farrell to put Betts between legendary designated hitter David Ortiz and powerful slugger Hanley Ramirez in the lineup. Betts was hitting in the cleanup spot, a role saved for only some of the best hitters in the league.

Between the high-octane offense that Betts provided and his first Gold Glove Award for his defensive skills in right field, what else does the man have to prove to the Red Sox?

Nothing. That’s the answer. All that the Red Sox need to do is realize that Betts makes the team sit in a much better position in multiple ways.

Besides producing runs and making highlight-reel catches in the outfield, Betts also provides the Red Sox with leverage in the trade market. He can play multiple positions, as second base used to be his role. Boston was in dire need of a center fielder in 2014 and Betts provided that for them. If the Red Sox felt that they needed to trade a young talent like Jackie Bradley Jr., the current center fielder, Betts could easily retake the role. And, the Red Sox have many players to fit either left or right field, making it less difficult to find a replacement for Betts.

Betts’ smile seems to be permanently framed on his face, even when the game was on the line. Whether offensively or defensively, Betts just seemed ready to help the Red Sox win the game. Much of the 2016 season, he wasn’t just a young talent anymore; he was leading the team that included Big Papi Ortiz, a great leader in his own right. Why would anyone think to make Betts wait for his future to be secured when he has done so much already for the franchise?

Instead of thinking about the money that could be used to sign a big-name free agent this offseason, the Red Sox should be thinking about making their current young core happy playing for Boston for the foreseeable future. Betts must be first on that list.

One cannot expect Betts to put the team on his back and make another push for the postseason while being paid ridiculously less than everyone else on the team. Give the man his just due, even if it’s a record-breaking number. That smile has to stay on his face, or it will be Red Sox Nation who will be frowning in 2020 when Betts looks for free agent satisfaction somewhere else.

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