FORT MYERS, Fla. -- It has been a different spring for Xander Bogaerts.
He is no longer an anonymous prospect. He no longer navigates between back fields at the Red Sox' spring training complex in obscurity. At the tender age of 20, he's in big league spring training camp, a reminder that he could make his major league debut as early as 2013.
Thus it comes as little surprise that Bogaerts, who has been tabbed by several publications as one of the top 10 prospects in all of baseball, commands the attention of a potential superstar. Coming off a year when he dominated players who were several years older than him, and in which he became the first Red Sox teenager to hit 20 homers at any level since Tony Conigliaro -- rather incredibly -- accomplished the feat in the big leagues in 1964, Bogaerts now represents the next big thing in spring training.
"You notice," said Bogaerts.
Yet he is comfortable with the attention. He encountered it to varying degrees already last year, when the buzz surrounding him in High-A Salem and Double-A Portland amplified. None of that deterred him from tremendous performances that elevated his prospect status.
That is in keeping with a career where Bogaerts has seemed unfazed by anything with which he's been confronted. At every new level, every new challenge, every new stop, he's dazzled both on and off the field.
On Thursday, Bogaerts will make something of a semi-official unveiling. When the Red Sox take on Boston College in the second contest of a day-night doubleheader, Bogaerts will have a chance to start displaying his talents in a game for the first time as a firmly on-the-radar prospect. He will bat sixth, play third base and demand notice of any onlookers.
If his prior history of first impressions is any guide, there seems an excellent likelihood that Bogaerts will prove impossible to overlook.
With the assistance of several current and former members of the Red Sox front office and player development staff, here is a history of Bogaerts' first impressions over the last four years.
THE SCOUTING PROCESS (2009)
The Red Sox almost never got the chance to get their first impression of Bogaerts. When international cross-checker Mike Lord conducted a workout to scout local players in Aruba in 2009, the young shortstop was bedridden with the chicken pox. But at the end of the workout, Lord famously (at least in Red Sox circles) inquired whether there was anyone else whom he should see.
Bogaerts -- whose brother, Jair Bogaerts, had been the early standout at the workout -- was convinced to get out of bed to join. It was scouting love at first sight.
"Xander shows up, and he's broad-shouldered, nice, athletic-looking guy. He looked like he just woke up. It was like a rock star just showed up out of a limo," said Lord. "All the guys love him and he was so personable to everyone, had this great smile. They're asking how he's doing, hugging him. It was like, 'Wow, Xander's here.'
"You're thinking about this guy's been sick, has been sleeping, probably hasn't swung the bat in about two or three weeks. He shows up, goes out, stretches for, like, two seconds, goes out to shortstop, starts taking groundballs. Right away, you're like, 'Holy cow.' You see his hands work. The fields are horrendous. There's half-rock, half-sand. Every other ball is flying off on a bad hop. He gets a couple bad hops, but he makes plays, and you could just see the athleticism.
"Got him in, we took a little BP and he just started the game. ... First thing he did that was really crazy was, there's a guy on second base, a ball is hit up the middle. He dives, lays out, catches it on the ground, spins, has enough baseball awareness to know he doesn't have a play at first, then he throws it from his butt all the way to home plate and throws the guy out. I'm like, 'Wow, this guy has a feel for the game.' Right away you could see that.
"Then he came up, and there was a little 10-15 mph wind coming in from left field.
And he blasts one, pitchers weren't great there, but he turns on a fastball and puts it into a house through the wind a long way in his first at-bat. He had gotten about five swings in.
"Next time up, he went oppo to right-center, got one up in the air and took it out.
I start filming him because down there, when I'm talking to [former Red Sox international scouting director Craig Shipley], it's a lot easier if I send video. So I got this video, and when I got back to the hotel, normally with Ship, you would say, 'This is what I saw.' It was pretty all business and detailed. But we've been buddies for a long time, so I just said, 'Ship, watch this.' That's all I said.
"In about two seconds, my phone starts ringing. He's like, 'Holy cow, where did you find this guy?' "
THE WORKOUT IN FORT MYERS (2009)
Bogaerts actually signed his first professional contract -- garnering a $410,000 bonus -- in Fenway Park, following an international tournament in Maine in August 2009. He did not get to work out at Fenway at the time, instead getting his first opportunity to hit before members of the Red Sox front office in Fort Myers shortly thereafter.
"Mike Lord and Ship did a great job. We talked a lot about the family, what an impressive family it was, how important education was. There was a presence about Xander, a star quality even off the field that we were attracted to," said former Sox GM Theo Epstein. "Then, when you get a look at him, the athleticism jumped out, a projectable body, bat speed, strength in his hands, the way the ball jumped off the bat. He had awkward actions early on at shortstop but he made the plays. You projected, based on the athleticism, that he could maybe figure out the actions a little bit. A fourth-grader could scout him now and see the way the ball jumps off his bat. That was present right away."
Bogaerts was smaller then, but he hit the ball with authority rarely seen from teenagers.
"He was a lot skinnier at that point -- you'd say, 'Yeah, pretty athletic' -- but then you'd see low, line drive two-irons off the fence in the gaps. 'Jeez,' " said Red Sox director of player development Ben Crockett.
THE DOMINICAN ACADEMY (2009)
Bogaerts got his first extended taste of professional baseball at the Red Sox' Dominican Academy in late 2009. There, a number of Red Sox player development officials got their first look at a player whose gifts quickly became obvious.
"He was a relative unknown when we got him in the Dominican. I'd seen the video, but I'd never seen him in person," said Sox international director of scouting Eddie Romero, then the team's player development coordinator in Latin America. "[The first thing that stood out was] athleticism. It was a very impressive body -- a body you could project strength on. He was vigorous. There was a lot of energy to his game. He was always happy and you could tell he was having fun. He was excited to be there but ready to work. He established a routine very early on. And then there was his pop -- we'd start watching BP. He was lean and didn't have the muscle mass he does now, but there was another gear to the balls coming off the bat."
As was the case with Lord, it took the Sox managers, coaches and instructors little time to take notion.
"Impact bat. You could see it right away. I think he was 16 years old at the time. You could see right away the bat life," said Kevin Boles, now a manager in Double-A Portland, and then the manager in Single-A Greenville. "He was 16 years old, a little out of position, looked a little awkward at times. Now he's polished up his actions quite a bit."
Gary DiSarcina, in his capacity as the Red Sox' roving infield coordinator, also had his first glimpse of Bogaerts in that year-ending stretch. Despite the need to work on fundamentals, DiSarcina saw a player with a long, lean shortstop's farm. He saw a hitter who took some bad swings at breaking balls but who competed in the batter's box during game, and who was willing to shorten his swing and hit to the opposite field when he had two strikes.
And then, there was the presence.
"I can close my eyes and picture him even during BP, just the joy he had to play: He really enjoyed playing. He enjoyed practicing. He enjoyed taking ground balls. He enjoyed instruction. Then, he got in the batter's box and competed," said DiSarcina. "He ran hard down the line, had a smile and an infectious quality and definitely showed the leadership qualities you'd want to see in a middle infielder.
"I took a lot of positives away from that trip. The thing that stood out was that he competed. He may have seemed a little overmatched at times because he wasn't strong yet, especially in the batter's box. He made some silly errors in the field -- he was charging balls and a bit out of control, stayed back on some balls. But those were all things that would come."
The Bogaerts twins were together quite a bit, and the pairing of the shortstop and catcher created a striking visual impression.
"They kind of formed a number of 10 -- here's Bogaerts and here's his brother. [Jair is] a little rounder, strong, too. They're easy-going, always smiling. Their Spanish was just so-so at the time, which is funny because now I think Xander speaks more Spanish than English," recalled current Red Sox director of player development Duncan Webb. "One thing that stood out right away with Xander was his ability to get the bat through the zone, even as a skinny kid. Defensively, he wasn't much to write home about. He was a shortstop, decent actions but we weren't really projecting him to be a defensive player. But the bat -- swing path, the hands, bat speed -- was always there. And then he starts to develop physically, he improves defensively and starts to get a better approach at the plate. That's when you start to see the numbers."
As impressive as Bogaerts was in his workout at the academy, Webb notes that he's seen other Red Sox prospects with comparable bat speed at a young age, citing highly touted 2006 signees Oscar Tejeda and Engel Beltre as examples. The fact that both Tejeda and Beltre are now 23 and have never advanced past Double-A -- the same level that Bogaerts reached last year -- offers a glimpse into the fact that present tools in a teenager are not necessarily a harbinger of future success.
So how to explain the difference?
"I wouldn't necessarily say that Bogaerts showed anything that those two guys didn't at that age. It was pretty similar -- good-looking swing, quick hands, bat speed, an ability to impact the ball -- where most 16-year-old kids down there, you're throwing batting practice and almost feel like you could knock the bat out of their hands," noted Webb. "I would say [the separator], honestly, was probably makeup. He has the ability to not get totally obsessed over a bad at-bat. A lot of guys, you see it affect them defensively or in their next at-bat. Bogaerts, not to say he doesn't take it seriously, but he'll let it go. As we've seen, guys that can do that make huge leaps in player development because they don't get caught up in the mind games of baseball and failure. So I think that's been the greatest separator -- that and the fact that he's probably put on 30 pounds of muscle since then."
THE FIRST FULL PROFESSIONAL SEASON (2010)
Bogaerts was in Fort Myers for a minor league mini-camp in early 2010, participating as a 17-year-old. One day, he was on Field 5 at the Sox' old spring training complex, taking part in batting practice with older minor leaguers such as Aaron Bates (an almost-26-year-old who had gotten a cup of coffee in the big leagues the previous season) and Zach Daeges.
"When you're taking batting practice with that range of ages, it's a different sound from Bates and Daeges and then a younger player in the organization steps in and it's a quieter sound. Well, this individual steps into the turtle for batting practice for his group," said Double-A hitting coach Dave Joppie. "All of a sudden ... "
Joppie, in recounting the story, turned his head with a start. Something captivated his attention. He heard the sound, saw the swing and realized that it was one of the teenagers producing the sort of sound that typified the batting practice of players almost a decade older than him.
Red Sox minor league hitting coordinator Victor Rodriguez happened to pass by Joppie at that moment. Joppie summoned him.
"Ohhh, hey -- that's Xander Bogaerts," Rodriguez explained to Joppie. "I was like, 'Man -- I can't wait to see this kid. It's going to be fun to watch this player develop in our system.' "
Bogaerts performed well in the Dominican Summer League that year. But while his numbers were solid -- a .314 average, .396 OBP, .423 slugging mark and .819 OPS with three homers and 15 extra-base hits in 63 games -- they weren't yet at the point where elite prospect status was obvious. There was considerable upside by that point, but even when Bogaerts excelled in fall instructional league, it would have been premature to suggest that he'd start on a blazing trail to the big leagues.
MAKING HIS MARK IN THE STATES (2011)
Bogaerts was supposed to open the 2011 season in extended spring training and then, given how advanced he was for his age, he was slated to get pushed as an 18-year-old to Short-Season Single-A Lowell, where he'd be one of the youngest position players in the league.
Yet Bogaerts was so dominant in extended spring training, so far advanced beyond his competition, that the Sox made the bold decision to push him -- at age 18 -- to the South Atlantic League. When he put up outrageous numbers for Greenville against much, much older opponents, it offered the first suggestion of potential star power. He hit .260 with a .324 OBP and .509 slugging mark with an eye-opening 16 homers in 72 games.
Yet beyond the numbers and the power, it was Bogaerts' approach that made the most dominant first impression at the level.
"Wow. He's only 18," Greenville hitting coach Luis Lopez said in the first weeks of Bogaerts' time in Greenville in 2010. "If he has a bad AB, a young kid like that won't know. He'll come up to you and say, 'I think I was pulling off.' Then, not only that, but the next AB, he'll make the adjustment. That's impressive. I played 10 years in the big leagues and sometimes I didn't know what I was doing. This kid, at 18, he has an idea. He won't give away at-bats. At that age, that's outrageous. I've never seen anything like it.
"And when he swings, it's a totally different sound coming off that bat when he's taking BP and when he hits it. It's totally different from anyone else."
'SECOND' FIRST IMPRESSIONS (2012-13)
Bogaerts has now been in the Red Sox system for long enough that he is widely known. And so, now, when he is introduced to a new level, it is typically a reintroduction to the coaches there rather than a pure first glimpse.
That was the case when he achieved elite prospect status in 2012. Bogaerts was a standout performer as the second-youngest player in the High-A Carolina League, hitting .302 with a .378 OBP, .505 slugging mark and .883 OPS along with 15 homers in a league and home ballpark in Salem that rank among the toughest hitters' environments in the minors. That, in turn, resulted in a promotion to the Double-A Portland Sea Dogs, for whom Bogaerts was the youngest position player in the Eastern League last year.
He defied his youth, hitting .302/.378/.505/.883. Joppie once again witnessed "the wow factor," and in seeing Bogaerts in games, despite the fact that the prospect had just one walk (against 21 strikeouts) in 23 contests, the hitting coach observed a mature approach that resulted in his five homers and 15 extra-base hits in 23 games, with a .326/.351/.598/.949 line.
"I saw somebody with an advanced approach, somebody who displayed the patience that puts him ahead of the curve development-wise," said Joppie. "The biggest things we do at the Double-A level is start honing in on strike zone discipline, strike zone knowledge, zone management and pitch recognition. That's going to be the key to their development and success moving forward. If you try to learn strike zone discipline and knowledge up in the big leagues, you're going right back down.
"He has that ability to do that because he has such quickness in his bat. He is able to let the baseball work further back into his stance before he has to make a decision of whether to impact the ball or not. That's something he's blessed with. He can wait a little bit longer than other people about whether to go. And then, when he decides to go, it's a different sound."
The familiar sound is familiar. In other respects, however, the "second first impression" being created by Bogaerts is different from the one he offered two and three years ago.
Because of the dramatic way in which his body has filled out, with the addition of 30-plus pounds of muscle that has transformed him from a projectable but skinny 6-foot-2, 175-pound player when he signed to a 6-foot-3, 205-pound force who, at 20, looks physically like a big leaguer, he inspires something of a double take.
"I've had almost two different first impressions of him, because I've been away for two or three years. Now he's a totally different cat," said DiSarcina, back in the Red Sox organization as the manager of Triple-A Pawtucket. "He's big, strong. When you see him, that's what an All-Star is supposed to look like: Big, strong, athletic, just the potential that, when you see them when they're young and project what they're going to be like …
"Now he's filled out. I didn't even recognize him when I saw him at the Rookie Development Program [in Boston in January]. He was sitting down in a chair in the clubhouse. I walked in and thought he was a pitcher because his frame -- he's filled out. But as soon as he stood up, I saw that smile and I said, 'Xander?' It was like I saw two different people."
As he moves steadily closer to the big leagues, the bar will be set higher for his game. The flaws will become more glaring given the increased need to iron out wrinkles in the 20-year-old's game before he reaches the majors.
And so, even as DiSarcina sees striking defensive progress -- a credit to both the player as well as to current Sox minor league infield coordinator Andy Fox -- he notes the need for improved consistency of his first-step quickness at short, a need for a more precisely calibrated pre-pitch routine to permit him to be on time.
"Sometimes he looks a bit awkward because he's a big-sized kid. But so did Cal Ripken," DiSarcina noted. "You can be a big shortstop and still make the plays, be efficient."
Even though Bogaerts will play third base against Boston College on Thursday and in the World Baseball Classic, however, new Red Sox third base coach and infield instructor Brian Butterfield suggests that, upon his first impression, he's dealing with a player who can remain at short.
"Just the feet and the hand positioning is very clean, which will enable him to have more success," said Butterfield. "I look at him -- great body, I look at him immediately as a shortstop. Then you're really sold with how quickly his feet move and allow him to get to the right position. You look at his athleticism, his body control, his ability to get the ball there in the air with arm strength. He has all the prerequisites. I don't like to sing his praises too much when I haven't seen him too much, but all the prerequisites are there. He's definitely a shortstop in my mind. I don't think anything else."
A TANTALIZING HINT
Of course, the true measure of what Bogaerts might become in the big leagues is to come. For now, the notions of bat speed and defensive ability and leadership are well and good, but games offer the true measure of what he might become in the big leagues, and how quickly he might get there.
It is for that reason that even DiSarcina, who has already had two "first impressions" with Bogaerts, is eager for the start of games in which he can get a true measure of how far the wildly talented youngster is.
"I can't wait for that next impression," said DiSarcina.
He's not alone, of course, though some of DiSarcina's eagerness runs counter to that of the fans who will be hoping for a crystal ball -- perhaps a double off the towering Green Monster at JetBlue Park, or a ball sliced into the gap in right-center.
DiSarcina, who spent the last two years working with the Angels, was witness to Mike Trout's full player development path, not just the jaw-dropping and transcendent rookie season in 2012 but also the struggles during a brief call-up in 2011. And so, having seen both ends of the spectrum with Trout, DiSarcina recognizes that there will come a time when Bogaerts will make an impression through how he handles adversity.
"We have all this excitement built up with Xander, and in the same breath, he hasn't failed yet. Hopefully he never fails, but as we all know, everyone fails in this game, usually multiple times," said DiSarcina. "Just seeing how they bounce back, how he reacts -- if and when I have him in Pawtucket, that's just as important to see. How is he going to react when things aren't going well. Is his personality going to change? Is he going to scuffle? Is he going to go into a shell? Is he going to grind and work his way through it?
"That's what I love about him -- he thinks a struggle is two days without a hit. The reality is it's going to be longer than that when he starts facing better pitching, and the scouts see weaknesses. That's when you'll see the blossoming -- when he starts to fail a little bit, adjusts back and gets back to a high quality of play."
It's a lot to digest. Bogaerts is about to appear on the most prominent stages of his career. Somewhere in front of him, there is a likelihood that failure looms. And if he pushes through, then the rewards can be extraordinary.
But all of that looms in the future. For now, the 20-year-old native of Aruba is simply ready to embrace the opportunity to make another round of first impressions.
"It's going to be crazy," said Bogaerts. "Take advantage of it, make the best of it."