Xander Bogaerts can hit. No question there.
As a 19-year-old this past year at High-A Salem and then Double-A Portland, he put up numbers unlike anything seen by a Red Sox prospect in nearly half a century. Bogaerts blasted 15 homers in 104 games in Salem before hitting five more in 23 games for the Sea Dogs.
How impressive was his total of 20 homers in 127 games as a teenager? The last Red Sox player to hit at least 20 homers at age 19 or younger at any level was … Tony Conigliaro, who hit 24 homers as a 19-year-old rookie in the big leagues in 1964. Nearly half a century later, Bogaerts became the next in line.
His overall line of a .307 average with a .373 OBP, .523 slugging mark and .896 OPS in his first full pro season (Bogaerts started 2011 in extended spring training before playing a half-year at Greenville) is little short of astonishing given the fact that he A) spent most of the year in a league (Carolina) and home ballpark (Salem’s LewisGale Field) that are hostile to offense, and B) was the second-youngest position player in the Carolina League and the youngest in the Double-A Eastern League.
“He’s a special kid. It’s amazing how every year he gets better. You talk about being 19 years old, he’s got a lot of road ahead of him to get better,” Red Sox minor league hitting coordinator Victor Rodriguez said. “He got to the next level and he was able to put it together there, make adjustments in games, slow things down and continue to do what he was doing in Salem. It was impressive how he handled himself with Double-A pitching.”
Asked about Bogaerts’ home run potential, Rodriguez marveled, “Oh my goodness -- the way the ball comes off the bat, he’s at a level of a [Bryce] Brentz and [Will] Middlebrooks -- but we’re talking about a guy who’s four years younger [than those two]. His strength is still growing. He’s still getting stronger. At 19 years old, he hit 20 homers in two tough leagues. He’s got a lot of good things ahead of him.”
On Wednesday, Baseball America tabbed Bogaerts as the top prospect in the Red Sox system -- an utterly unsurprising honor for the native of Aruba. The magazine depicted him as a future All-Star regardless of position; still, the question of where he will play in the big leagues weighs into whether he has the ceiling (caveat: enormous potential does not guarantee enormous big league success) of a superstar or an All-Star.
Consider: In the last five seasons, there have been 123 seasons of 30-plus homers. Here is how they break down by primary position:
Catcher – 1
First base – 42
Second base – 10
Third base – 15
Shortstop – 4
Left field – 16
Center field – 12
Right field – 17
Designated hitter – 6
Clearly, there is a glaring scarcity of power-hitting shortstops. Only catcher -- a position where players are typically limited to about 75 percent of the games of peers at other positions – has featured fewer 30-homer hitters in the last five years. (The infrequency of 30-homer designated hitters reflects in part on the fact that the DH only is in one league.) A shortstop capable of blasting 30 homers is roughly four times more rare than a third baseman, left fielder or right fielder who does the same thing.
With Bogaerts, entering 2012 it had been taken almost as an inevitability that his ascent to the big leagues would take him to a position other than shortstop. However, his body of work this year fought against that perception.
Defensively, Bogaerts isn’t going to be confused for Jose Iglesias. But that’s an unfair basis of comparison. No one, save for Omar Vizquel in his prime and a few others in the last 20 years, is going to compare defensively to Iglesias.
Increasingly, at age 19, he looked like a shortstop. Make no mistake, he’s huge for the position -- listed at 6-foot-2 and 175 pounds, he’s actually closer to 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds thanks to the strength gains he’s made since signing as a 16-year-old. Still, he’s maintained his athleticism while cutting down on some of the mistakes he used to make in the field.
His error totals declined considerably from 2011 to 2012, as he went from 26 errors in 71 games in Single-A Greenville to 21 errors in 119 games with Salem and Portland last year. That progress, and the improvement in his defensive fundamentals, has the Sox committed to continuing his development at shortstop.
“I don't think we have too many questions on his ability to play shortstop at this point. He's continued to show quite a bit of development defensively,” farm director Ben Crockett said. “The fundamentals and mechanics have continued to improve. We still have a ways to go, but he's continued to improve, and the athleticism that he's shown to make the routine play as well as to make the above-average play makes us feel pretty good about him being a shortstop.
“Again, things can change depending on major league need and pending significant changes in size and things like that, but I think that Xander was able to get stronger this offseason and maintain his speed and agility.”
The team could have sent him to winter ball to work on other positions, perhaps third base or right field (the most commonly discussed alternative positions or him). But such an assignment was deemed unnecessary at this point.
“He's given us no reason at this point to think he needs to move off of shortstop,” Crockett said. “I think [he looks more like a shortstop than he did in 2011], particularly going back to spring training in 2011. As you might expect, an 18-year-old kid who hadn't played shortstop -- or maybe not at as organized a level as those guys who have played maybe in the States growing up or the Dominican at a young age -- he was really just very raw defensively. [Red Sox infield coordinator] Andy Fox and the coaching staff he's worked with at each level have done a really good job honing those skills, making him more fundamentally sound, which has allowed his athleticism to come out and be a lot more consistent.”
It would be one thing for the Red Sox to beat that drum alone. But increasingly, conversations with talent evaluators from other organizations endorse the Sox’ approach with Bogaerts.
Here are a couple of assessments from scouts who follow the Red Sox system:
First evaluator: “He’s an interesting guy defensively. He’s so young, I’d let him keep playing there. When you watch this kid take groundballs in infield or batting practice, he actually has pretty relaxed actions. He shows his athleticism, looks like he’s having fun and you say, ‘This kid can play there long-term.’ And then you watch him in the game and he tightens up, doesn’t seem to move as quickly or as fluidly -- maybe he’s thinking too much. But I don’t know if it’s going to long-term prevent him from staying there, or if he’ll outgrow the position, but you see the actions and athleticism, and because it’s such a premium position, and certainly a position of need for the Red Sox, I would not take him off of there. … For me, as an evaluator, I’d let him stay there as long as possible, because he does have the athleticism, actions and arm strength to play it. He’s just got to loosen up during the game. He’s got special hands offensively. He’s got swing and miss in him, but the ability and hands are really, really special. When I watched Manny Machado this year, they’re very similar types of offensive guys for me.”
Second evaluator: “Bogaerts might get here as a shortstop. I think he moves somewhere else eventually, but he can get to the majors as a shortstop. He’s [expletive] good. He’s 19. I saw him hit two balls out to right field [in a series], you just don’t see that. Sure, he misses breaking stuff, but he’s [expletive] 19. The kid can hit. He’s not quick, he’s not fast, but he’s really good. He can play defense like [John Valentin] did. He has enough arm. If this kid can keep his weight down, the balls hit to him, he gets. Could you play him there? Yeah. Do I think Hanley [Ramirez] was a better shortstop at that age? Yeah. But I wouldn’t rule it out for this kid. He’s kind of like Machado. He might put on 30 pounds in the next four years, which would be natural, and then you’d have to [think about a different position]. But he might bat third [in the Red Sox lineup].”
Bogaerts certainly isn’t the prototypical build for a shortstop, but then, his bat is also not that of the prototypical all-glove/no-hit player at that position. And given his development path, it’s worth recalling that the Sox remained committed to the development of Jed Lowrie at shortstop through his minor league career when he didn’t necessarily have the ideal actions of someone at that position.
But Lowrie remained convinced he could handle the position, the Sox kept him there and were ultimately rewarded when the former sandwich-round pick proved a valuable contributor in stretches at that position. Bogaerts likewise remains convinced that he can stick at short, noting during the season that he hopes to follow in the footsteps of Derek Jeter and Troy Tulowitzki, players who are big for the position but nonetheless have built impressive resumes there.
"At this point, I can't imagine [not playing shortstop]," he said during the season.
For now, he won't have to challenge that self-image. Bogaerts will enter 2013 as a shortstop. But where?
With Mike Aviles having been dealt to the Blue Jays in the compensation deal for John Farrell, the question of Bogaerts’ big league readiness naturally will come into play. Still, given that he played just 23 games with 97 plate appearances in Double-A (a span during which he performed tremendously but walked just once while striking out 21 times), it’s worth sounding a conservative note.
There’s a chance that Bogaerts will receive a non-roster invitation to big league spring training camp (that determination has yet to be made), and given that he will have to be added to the 40-man roster after the 2013 season to protect him from the Rule 5 draft, there’s also an excellent chance that he’ll make his first big league appearance at some point this year.
Still, as talented as he is, and despite the fact that he’s earning comparisons to someone like Machado who was just a few months older than Bogaerts but hit the ground running in the big leagues in 2012, there’s virtually no chance that Bogaerts will be considered for a big league job to start 2013, according to multiple team decision-makers.
“The biggest thing is making sure that we’re right on this guy, not seeing how quick he can get there to prove that he’s a good player,” one team official said. “We’ve got to do right by him, making sure we get him to the big leagues where he’s ready. ... If we do our job in the offseason, hopefully we’re not talking about that on Opening Day.”
As for whether Bogaerts might see time in the big leagues in the coming season, the dismissals soften somewhat -- even though the team is mindful of the need to avoid setting timetables that require subsequent readjustment.
“I think that's probably unfair to Xander and the major league team [to say whether or not he’ll play in the majors in 2013], but no doubt he made quite an impression this year, making the transition to the upper levels at age 19 pretty smoothly,” Crockett said. “[It was a] limited sample -- 20-plus games in Portland. I think there's certainly more development time needed there. But it takes a pretty special player and special person to handle that kind of transition at such a young age.”
While Bogaerts turned 20 on Oct. 1, his career to date has created considerable eagerness for when (and where on the field) he will arrive. Nonetheless, the question of when his big league future begins is in many ways secondary to its promise. And on that front, there are few doubts.