Every great team has a Mookie Betts somewhere in the middle of the lineup. Every team needs that game-changer, really, a season-changer.
The Washington Nationals had Anthony Rendon last season. Before the Red Sox won in 2018, you could argue that the Houston Astros had two or three Mookies, in George Springer, José Altuve and Alex Bregman. They are MVP-caliber guys.
There's just one problem in Boston, same as the one in Washington with Rendon, who signed a 7-year, $245 million deal with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
Betts and his five tools are gone forever.
Something wasn’t right with Betts and Boston. He wasn’t comfortable even in what many of us believe is the best venue in all of baseball, with sellouts galore, home and away.
Betts had personality inside the white lines. He was electric. Outside of the park, he wasn’t as electric or comfortable.
And, so after turning down what was rumored to be a 10 year deal at $250 million to $300 million, he basically told the Red Sox he was leaving. And the Sox acquiesced.
Which brings us to the team's new dilemma: Who's next?
Who will be the centerpiece of the Red Sox franchise going forward, if championships are truly the goal?
There really is only one candidate: Rafael Devers.
Xander Bogaerts may be the new team leader and go-to guy when the Red Sox media demand a statement. He is Mr. Positive. He really appears to love being on the team. But he isn't Devers.
Our first inkling that Devers might be extra special came in August 2017, when he was only 20 years old in Yankee Stadium. Closer Aroldis Chapman had Devers at 1-and-2, with one out, in the ninth inning with the Yankees leading 2-1.
Devers hit a 102 mph hour fastball over the center field fence to tie the score. The Red Sox eventually won game in the 10th inning.
The blast showed what Devers would become.
At 22, he was electric in last year's downer of a season. He led all of baseball with 90 extra base hits. He had 32 homers and an American League-leading 54 doubles to go with his 115 RBI and .311 batting average.
His discipline improved too, striking out fewer times, despite playing 35 more games than he did in 2018.
"He has the potential to be extra special, no doubt about it," said Red Sox manager Ron Roenicke in early March. "He's got a maturity at the plate that you can't teach."
In 2020, he is a bona fide MVP candidate.
Devers appears ready to join the other five or so under 25-year-olds who are taking ownership of baseball. Yankees shortstop Gleyber Torres (23) and Nationals left fielder Juan Soto (21) are other headliners in that group.
As important as Devers ability is his durability, at least it was in 2019.
He led the team playing in 156 games and in most offensive categories. And that's saying something with the likes of Betts, Bogaerts and J.D. Martinez on the same team.
In March, Yankees reliever Adam Ottavino, a Northeastern University graduate, pitched an inning of perfect relief against the Red Sox. He didn't face Devers but knows him well.
Ottavino recalled a game last year when he threw one of his best pitches, which Devers lined out.
“He’s as gifted a hitter as there is,” said Ottavino. “He’s got a really good swing. His hands are strong. He covers the entire plate. I faced him a few times last year, and he comes to the plate to hit. He’s not up there waiting. He comes to hit.”
Devers easily could have 40 homers,130 RBI and a .325 batting average in that repertoire.
“He’s a special guy,” said Roenicke.
This off-season wasn't much different than the others, except the fact that Devers spent at least an hour each day working on his defense, which isn't MLB elite just yet.
“It’s important for me that I am known as a complete player,” Devers said through an interpreter after a game with the Yankees in Tampa in March. “I work hard on my defense every day. I like playing defense. I feel like I’m improving.”
The Red Sox lost a key piece, an MVP-level member of the lineup, with the Mookie Betts trade. But the lineup that's left with Devers, Andrew Benintendi, Bogaerts, Martinez, Kevin Pillar and Alex Verdugo promises a lot of runs, and hopefully a lot of fun days ahead.
Which brings us to another Devers’ staple -- his smile.
It never seems to go away.
“No, I smile all of the time,” he said. “I smile because I’m happy. I love baseball. This is what I do for a living. Why wouldn’t I smile?”