KANSAS CITY -- Xander Bogaerts served as the designated hitter for the World team at the All-Star Futures Game on Sunday. But it didn’t necessarily have to be that way.
Rangers minor leaguer Jurickson Profar -- one of the top prospects in the game -- was going to play short. But with Profar representing the cream of the proverbial crop for a World team that was somewhat loaded with shortstops, there was some thought that perhaps Bogaerts, a native of Aruba, could play third base in the midsummer prospect showcase.
The Red Sox wanted no part of such an experiment. Bogaerts has spent his entire minor league existence playing short, and it seemed unfair to ask him to move off the position under the spotlight of the most-watched minor league event of the year.
Still, it may not be the last time that the Red Sox are asked about Bogaerts’ viability for a position other than the one where he’s spent his pro career to date. Indeed, already, the questions are arising: Can the dazzling Red Sox prospect stay at the position where he’s spent his pro career?
At a chiseled 6-foot-3, he towers over the typical peer at the position, something that was evident as he stood casually around the batting cage with smaller teammates such as the 5-foot-11 Profar while the World team took batting practice.
Bogaerts has never played anything except shortstop in the minors. The Red Sox always have taken the approach with him, as they have with all of the players who enter their system at that position, that they’ll keep him at short until they have a reason not to continue his development at that position.
That approach reflects the fact that shortstop typically represents the area of the most glaring offensive deficiency in a team’s lineup. If an above-average major league hitter can handle the position adequately, he can offer a team a significant competitive advantage.
In the case of Bogaerts, while there is an assumption by many evaluators that his frame is so big -- at a time when he is still filling out -- that he will grow off the position, he has yet to reach that point. And for his part, Bogaerts -- who served as the designated hitter for the World team in the Futures Game -- wants badly to remain at a position where he’s spent his entire career.
"At this point, I can't imagine [not playing shortstop]. I’ve never played any other position than shortstop, pitcher and shortstop,” Bogaerts said. “I'm happy I'm given the opportunity to stay in the minor leagues with the Red Sox to play shortstop right now. Hopefully I'll stay there for a long time because I know I can play shortstop. Just keep working hard every day and try to get better, prove some people are wrong and that [I] can play shortstop."
He’s doing everything he can to prove that he can stick at the position, both in how he trained in the offseason and in terms of the work he puts in taking ground balls. Bogaerts, widely considered the highest-ceiling prospect in the Red Sox system, can see improvements.
A year ago, Bogaerts notes, he made 26 errors in 71 games. This year, he’s trimmed that total to 17 miscues in 76 contests.
"My defense is going really good,” he said. “I’ve had some poor errors, just throwing bad, being a little nonchalant, but my defense is really good this year. I'm really happy with that."
While he is aware that his size has lent itself to questions about his ultimate position, he does not see why physical stature would rule out his ability to play the position.
"Look at [Derek] Jeter, look at [Troy] Tulowitzki,” said Bogaerts, citing the shortstops of the Yankees and Rockies. “Those guys are pretty big for shortstop and they're all at shortstop right now. Jeter [has] played his whole career at shortstop, so why can't I? That's the question I ask myself sometimes.
“I'm an athlete, so I move around a lot. I have pretty good range so I reach a lot of balls,” he said. “I'm just getting in a good position to field grounders.”
The Red Sox, too, echo the idea that the shortstop continues to improve at his position.
“He keeps improving and showing off his athleticism,” farm director Ben Crockett said via text. “Like any young player, he is focusing on being more consistent fundamentally, but we are happy with his progress given age, experience, etc.”
While there might be some debate about the position where Bogaerts ultimately ends up, there is no question that he possesses incredible offensive potential. At 19, he’s one of the youngest everyday players in the High-A Carolina League, yet he is more than holding his own.
On the year, he's hitting .286/.364/.478/.842 with 12 homers, and he was just named Player of the Month in June for the Carolina League after hitting .337/.433/.624/1.057 with eight homers. Those numbers would be impressive in their own right, but they represent extraordinary marks given his age relative to his level of competition.
Bogaerts feels that his game has gotten better as the season has progressed, and that his already impressive power numbers would be even more eye-opening if he didn’t play in a park that is often characterized as a graveyard for fly balls because of the expansive dimensions, the extremely high walls and the absence of carry in Salem.
“In the first few months it was cold and I had like a problem in my thumb, I get in too much jam so my thumb was always bothering me, I guess in the hot weather my thumb wasn’t feeling anything, not even like a jam or anything, so I guess it’s the hot weather that’s keeping me up,” Bogaerts said. “I hit a lot of balls off the wall that should be home runs in any other field. It’s OK -- I’ve got 12 now and I’m pretty happy with that.”
He should be. Bogaerts has plenty of all-fields power (evaluators often shake their heads at the sight of his ability to unload on pitches and drive them to right and right-center, something that’s netted him more doubles than homers in Salem). He’s tied for fourth in the Carolina League in homers; the three players in front of him in the category are 24, 23 and 25 years old.
In many ways, given the different offensive environment and the more advanced level, he’s been the same power hitter that he was a year ago when he walloped 16 homers in 72 games for Single-A Greenville to put himself on the prospect map.
At the same time, he’s shown increased maturity at the plate, improving his walk rate while dropping (slightly) his strikeout rate. That, in turn, has helped him improve his average from .260 in Greenville last year to .286 this year in Salem, while his OBP has gone up from .324 to .364.
“I’m seeing the ball better, recognizing off-speed pitches better, drawing some pretty good walks, striking out also but not as much last year,” Bogaerts said. “I’m pretty happy with the way I’m getting on base.”
He has reason to be satisfied with just about every aspect of his professional career to date. At 19, Bogaerts is emerging as a potential star, a status that was ratified by his participation -- albeit as a DH -- in the Futures Game on Sunday. He went 1-for-4, staying on an 83 mph changeup away from top Mariners pitching prospect Danny Hultzen (the No. 2 overall pick in the 2011 draft) for his single while striking out twice, once on a nasty changeup from Gerritt Cole (the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 draft) and then on a big breaking ball from Diamondbacks prospect Tyler Skaggs.
The contest offered Bogaerts his first opportunity to enjoy a prominent spot on the stage offered by a big league setting. At 19, he does not yet feel as if his time in the major leagues is close, but on days like Sunday, he is reminded that he is continuing to push toward that goal.
“[The big leagues feel] pretty far right now,” Bogaerts said. “Maybe when I reach Double-A, hopefully I'll realize that it's pretty close. It's right there, you could just be one call away to the big leagues."