The year is 2018. Mookie Betts is batting leadoff and playing center field for the Boston Red Sox. He’s blossomed into a plus defender in the outfield, developed into a consistent 20-steal threat and has finished in the top 30 in the league in OBP in each of the past two seasons. At any given game, “Betts 50” jerseys are draped on the backs of the young and the old alike all throughout Fenway Park. Even Yankees fans like Betts. He’s just too much fun. He’s a star, and the Red Sox have him.
The year is 2018. Xander Bogaerts is batting third and playing shortstop for the Boston Red Sox. The plus power projection we’ve heard so much about for so long isn’t a projection anymore. Bogaerts surpassed the 25-homer mark last year, and this year he’s challenging for 30. He’s a .285 hitter with a .360 OBP. He’s fine at shortstop. People are finally realizing how special this is. There’s no one else like him in the game right now. He’s a star, and the Red Sox have him.
Those outcomes really could happen, you know. They might not, but they really could. Forget about probability and downside and risk for a second, and just allow yourself to bask in the possibility.
Stop basking, because now you have to choose. You’re starting a team, and now you do need to consider probability and downside. You can only have one of Mookie Betts or Xander Bogaerts, which is a sad proposition only when you compare it to having both.
So who’s it going to be? Who are you going to build your franchise around?
If you’re having trouble answering, you’re not alone. Do you take the incredibly high floor and stronger start to a career that Betts boasts, or do you let yourself dream on one of the better prospects of the last five years in Bogaerts? It’s not an easy call.
To help make that call, I reached out to six people in the know and asked them to pick one of Betts or Bogaerts and to tell me why in 100 words. They weren’t so good at sticking to the word count, but they were very good at telling me why, and their answers perfectly sum up the Betts vs. Bogaerts dilemma. (We don’t need to rehash who Bogaerts and Betts were as prospects and what they’ve done since. There are great pieces for that all around the interwebs, and if you don’t know, here’s a great breakdown by Matt Kory that covers the start of both careers.)
On to the expert opinions:
I started by asking Baseball Prospectus’ fearless leader and non-Red Sox source Sam Miller, who, as a fan of no one and nothing, shouldn’t have an attachment to either player. His response:
“I’ve come to be very conservative when it comes to expecting growth. When I look at PECOTA’s 10-year projections, it’s sometimes jarring to see that, even for young players, “growth” into a player’s mid and late 20s is typically forecast to be minimal. (The reverse is not true; aging curves hit hard after 30.) Some players do develop into stars, and some (say, Elvis Andrus and Starlin Castro) don’t, and some get worse or hurt; as a population, though, ballplayers are fairly steady. So, for instance, when I look at Xander Bogaerts’ 10-year forecast, I see a player who can expect to get a little better in his mid/late 20s, but not radically better. Same with Betts. Which is a long way of saying that, in questions like this, I’ve moved away from the “who can I dream on” question and toward the “what is this guy right now?” question.
Right now, I think Betts is the better ballplayer. For all the significance of Bogaerts simply being in the majors at such a young age—younger than Betts was at debut—the facts are that we’ve had a pretty good look at him, and he is, right now, about an average major-leaguer. And right now, in my assessment, Betts is better than that. (Another month of Betts’ slump might make me reconsider.) I’m taking the better now player, even if he is short and doesn’t have the same prospect pedigree.”
That’s a very fair, cogent argument for Betts. Assuming either player will be better is dangerous, and if we’re just talking present value, Betts is probably an easy choice. One vote for Mookie.
The next stone cast for Mookie comes from Marc Normandin, the leader of the excellent Over The Monster SB Nation blog. Marc’s take, complete with humblebrag:
“This should be a tougher call for me than it is, but I’ve (quietly, so as to avoid ridicule) believed Betts was the better prospect since before Bogaerts began to struggle in 2014. Now you’ve gone and called me on it, though, so all my secrecy was for naught.
The separator for me is the defense: Bogaerts’ ceiling with the glove is either as a competent shortstop or as an average or better corner outfielder, but the latter is mostly a guess, and requires his bat progresses significantly. We know already that Betts is a legitimately amazing defender at second, and early returns from his transition to the outfield are promising. Bogaerts has the higher offensive ceiling, but it’s not so far above Betts’ own that it makes up for the difference in defense between the two.
There is definitely a chance to get burned here, as Bogaerts’ future power is just so tantalizing, especially in this pitcher-friendly era we’re in, but Betts seems like he has the better chance to be the more complete player — patience, contact, speed, defense, a little bit of power, basically everything save a strong arm. If you’re building a team from scratch, it’s hard to avoid preferring that player.”
It’s interesting to think of center field as a more valuable defensive position than shortstop, but it’s easy to see why Normandin would value a plus defensive center fielder to an average or slightly below average defensive shortstop. Two votes for Mookie.
The last to speak for Mookie is Jim Callis of MLB.com, who’s forgotten more about baseball than I know. Mr. Callis says:
“It’s a tough call. I believed in Mookie Betts going into 2014, but I would have definitely gone with Xander Bogaerts a year ago. Now I’m really torn. Though I still believe Bogaerts can develop into a 25-homer shortstop, I think I’d have to go with Betts. Betts doesn’t have that kind of pop but he could be a 15-homer guy and right now he looks like the better hitter, the better OBP guy, the better runner and the better defender. I think he offers more defensive value in center field than Bogaerts does at shortstop. Ask me again in three months, and I might flip — it’s that tough a call for me.”
Here we have a blend of Miller’s “he’s better now” argument and Normandin’s “he’s better at more things” argument, and that makes complete sense. Three votes for Mookie.
God, Mookie Betts is good. We’re really lucky as fans to have a Mookie Betts to call our own. That speed. That swagger. What could be better than a Mookie?
Xander, though. That swing. Those eyes. It wasn’t tough to find experts willing to speak up for him, too.
For our first Pro-Xander take, we turn to Czar of the BP Prospect Team, Chris Crawford:
“In some ways, the fact that this is even up for debate is concrete proof that recency bias is very much alive and well. Bogaerts is one of the most talented prospects I’ve seen in the past five years, and while he didn’t exactly set the world on fire during his rookie season, I did see enough flashes of brilliance to suggest he’s still going to be an offensive force at the shortstop position. The fact that people are willing to give up on a 22 year old is borderline baffling to me.
And yet, there’s part of me that believes that Betts is the player I’d rather start a franchise with. No, he doesn’t have the same upside that Bogaerts does, but he does have the higher floor, and when you have three 60 tools you aren’t exactly lacking in upside, either. At the end of the day I go with the power-hitting shortstop, but if you wanted to go with the leadoff hitting centerfielder instead, I wouldn’t call you a nincompoop.”- Chris Crawford, Baseball Prospectus
Crawford points out (correctly, in my estimation) that people forget just how good a prospect Bogaerts really was and how recently we thought of him as such. This wasn’t just a generic organizational No. 1 prospect. This was a consensus top-three prospect in the game, and for many, he was tops overall. That’s special. Mookie’s got three votes, but now Xander’s on the board with one.
Next up for Xander is Chris Mellen, also a member of the BP Prospect Team and a card-carrying Red Sox prospects expert who’s also spent time with the excellent SoxProspects.com. Mellen’s take:
“I’d take Xander Bogaerts if I was starting a team today, but Mookie Betts has closed that gap from what it’s been in the past. For me, I see Bogaerts evolving into more of a power bat as he continues to mature at the big-league level. Maybe that’s going to take a few seasons to really manifest, but I firmly believe we’ll see that happen. The glove has never wowed me at short, though if he can limit the amount of mistakes and make the plays he can make that type of offensive output is going to be very valuable.
Betts is obviously no slouch on his own right, and there’s a lot to like here. Both are core caliber players to build around for me, who are likely going to be compared and contrasted for the foreseeable future. I could swing more towards Betts in this type of scenario if Bogaerts’ bat were to fall flat enough where it’s no longer offsetting the defense at short or too light at third. That’s a low probability in my eyes, but given Betts’ smooth transition to center the bat playing up to its potential makes him a very well rounded player.”
Mellen is quick to praise Betts, but damn, the allure of Bogaerts’ bat reaching maturity while he’s passable at shortstop is just too much to give up. It’s a common theme with Bogaerts supporters, and it brings our tally to Mooke: 3, Xander: 2.
Finally, I asked Bret Sayre, BP Fantasy and Prospect Team extraordinaire and Internet Father Figure. His pro-Xander take:
“Forced to abandon all rosters and start with one, I’m still part of what I can only assume is a shrinking minority that would still take Xander Bogaerts over Mookie Betts. Let’s get this out of the way up front: this has nothing to do with Betts, who looks like a borderline-star in his own right. This is about Bogaerts, plain and simple. There have been no shortage of questions about Bogaerts as he moved through the minors and his first two seasons in the majors, chief among them these two: would he be able to stick at shortstop without embarrassing himself and would his plate discipline allow the natural talent and power he has to shine. Those are more footnotes than questions at this point, and we’re only left wondering when the in-game power will start showing up in spades. That’s a question I’m much more comfortable will be answered than the two before it.
Not only is Bogaerts still just 22, but he’ll play the whole season at that age–and remains just shy of a week older than Betts. And for all of the talk of his 2014 season being a failure, there are only four shortstops who have gotten 500 plate appearances in their age-21 season and registered a higher OPS+ than his mark of 86 in the last 20 years. You’ve heard of those players: Alex Rodriguez, Starlin Castro, Mike Caruso (OK, maybe not him) and Edgar Renteria. Even without any of that prior information, it’s a basic equation. Give me the shortstop who has the floor of an every day regular and the ceiling of a superstar, versus the center fielder with a star-level ceiling and an above-average regular floor.”
Sayre also sells out for ceiling, unable to resist the siren that is a middle-of-the-order bat at shortstop. All tied up at three votes for Mookie and three for Xander.
Out of curiosity, I asked the BP Boston staff to vote. The surprising verdict: eight for Mookie and four for Bogaerts, a much more definitive take than what the experts offered. The lines of reasoning for the Feats of Mookie fans on the staff are similar to what you’ve seen above: he’s good now and he could get better. The floor is too damn high.
Finally, I also offered this up to a Twitter poll, because I’m nothing if not thorough. The results: 26 votes for Xander and 24 for Mookie. Personally, I find this total surprising, as I’d assumed the average fan would take a What Have You Done For Me Lately approach and heavily skew toward Mookie.
The tiebreaker? Well, there is no tiebreaker. I didn’t specifically ask six experts knowing I’d get a three-three split, and I asked a mix of scout types and all-around analysis types. This is just how it worked out, and I think that’s really perfect, in a way.
Ok fine, I’m the tiebreaker.
Mookie is great. He’s exactly what you want in a leadoff hitter, he’s a freak athlete, he’s got enough power to hit between 15-20 homers every year and he’s an on-base machine. The man can even play second base. He’s one of the better young players in the game, and he is the best.
But I’m going with Xander Bogaerts, because I can’t help myself. Just watch Bogaerts’ swing when he gets ahold of one. There’s, like, no effort. It’s so easy, so beautiful. It’s the type of swing that’s going to let him hit 30 homers sooner rather than later, and it’s the type of swing that should allow him to hit any type of pitching once his approach catches up to his natural ability. You can’t teach that type of right-handed swing. If you could, everyone would have it.
Defensively, I’ve long been convinced that Bogaerts will be able to stay at short through his mid-20s. It’s not always pretty, but Bogaerts has the arm to make plays from deep in the hole, and his first step has gotten a lot better since he broke into the majors. He’s never going to win a Gold Glove, no, but I don’t think he’s a liability at shortstop right now, and I don’t think he will be for the foreseeable future. And, as others have noted, if he does have to move to third base in five or six years, odds are he’ll be hitting for enough power by then that the bat will play just fine.
I first saw Bogaerts in Portland in 2012. He wasn’t a huge name yet. Gerrit Cole had taken a no-hitter into the sixth, and he looked like a man pitching against boys. He was untouchable.
Then Bogaetrs came to the plate and smashed an opposite field double that nearly left the park. He was even more slight than he is now, an 18-year-old playing against a legitimate man, and he was totally unphased by the reality of the situation. It’s the same type of poise we saw in the 2013 postseason, and the same we’ve seen flashes of throughout Bogaerts career so far. I don’t really know what it is, but he has it, and I think he’s going to make us very happy for a very long time.
There’s no wrong answer when it comes to Betts vs. Bogaerts. That much should be clear. And now that we’ve gone through that exercise, we can sit back, relax and smile, because we in fact don’t have to choose. The Red Sox have both Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts, and we are lucky.
Top photo by Bill Streicher/USA Today Sports Images