By this point, you've probably heard that Red Sox top prospect Xander Bogaerts has now been promoted to Triple-A Pawtucket. And by this point, you've probably heard that Bogaerts is a potential superstar-in-the-making -- one of the top prospects in all of the minors, if not the top prospect.
But what does that mean?
Simply put, Bogaerts hits all the checkboxes: tools, makeup, position, performance and, perhaps most importantly, age and aptitude.
Ever since he was a 16-year-old whom the Sox signed out of Aruba, Bogaerts has produced a different sound when the barrel of the bat meets the ball. He sends baseballs flying out of the park to all fields with a swing so fluid, so natural that it makes Tom Emanski light-headed.
"I was joking with [Portland hitting coach Rich Gedman] the other day, after this guy gets done taking batting practice, the scouts go down to the concourse to have a smoke. It's that kind of batting practice," Portland manager Kevin Boles recently said.
He can hit for average. This year in Double-A, his ability to control the strike zone against breaking stuff meant to inspire chases was an eye-opener. He has monster power, the ability to not just clear fences but make them a distant memory, with the hand-eye coordination and approach to suggest an ability to translate those gifts to the game.
The PawSox, in the press release announcing his promotion, said that Bogaerts will be the youngest position player in the Triple-A team's history. He is the first 20-year-old position player to have an everyday opportunity in Pawtucket since Juan Bustabad in 1982 -- two years before Bogaerts made his debut on planet earth.
Obviously, putting Bogaerts in such a challenging position is a reflection of his abilities, but it is also a byproduct of his makeup and maturity. He has the ability to embrace the game's challenges, to want to work his way through his struggles rather than giving up and, more often than not, to do so with a high-wattage smile.
Team officials typically discuss Bogaerts' charisma, his evident and infectious passion for the game, as part of the reason why he is positioned to withstand the fallow stretches that necessarily occur while being pushed against more and more advanced levels.
"I think certainly it's one thing to have the talent to do it and another to have the maturity to handle some of the ups and downs that will likely occur," said Sox farm director Ben Crockett. "I think he's always had a pretty impressive level of maturity. Any time you're pushing a guy, you're testing that, testing the baseball skill set, the fundamental skill set but more than anything, you're more testing the mental side of the way he's doing things.
"It's always going to be harder. You're going to be attacked a different way, see different stuff as you're pushed up the ladder. Thus far, he's responded without question or concern. He stays pretty even-keel. His passion for the game and energy allows that to happen every day, allows him to bring a positive approach no matter what happens."
Manager John Farrell told reporters in Baltimore that Bogaerts will get his feet wet by remaining at shortstop for seven to 10 games but then move a bit around the infield, getting some time at both third base and second. That education in versatility, Farrell underscored, is a means of making Bogaerts a viable insurance policy at multiple positions for the Sox. Nonetheless, the organization remains committed to his development at shortstop, and indeed by and large the club views him as a viable future big league shortstop.
That outlook comes as something of a surprise. Just two years ago, one would have been hard-pressed to find any talent evaluators -- even inside the Sox organization -- who would have forecast a future as a big league shortstop for Bogaerts, based on the expectation that at 6-foot-3 and with an ever-growing muscle mass, he would outgrow the position and fail to maintain the necessary quickness and fluidity to stay at the position. But while Bogaerts is now a muscular 205 pounds, he's maintained his range and agility and improved the efficiency of his actions in the field.
Red Sox minor league infield coordinator Andy Fox was teammates in the Yankees system with a certain 20-year-old shortstop, one year removed from his committing 56 errors in a season. That performance led to questions about whether Derek Jeter would be able to play short at a big league level. One Hall of Fame career later, the world has an answer.
So, what has Fox -- who has worked with Bogaerts starting in the Dominican Summer League in 2010 -- see from a 20-year-old Bogaerts as compared to a 20-year-old Jeter?
"[Bogaerts] was very raw but you could see the athleticism [in 2010]," Fox said in spring training. "Once he started going through the process, you'd start to see little building blocks. Not that there's not more to do, but the adjustments are minimal compared to what they were two years ago. He's probably gained four years of work in a two-year period because of his makeup, his athleticism. He's got the maturity to handle it.
"With Xander, you don't know if he'll ever fill out. He's so diligent in the weight room with the work he does. You never know. To me, he's shown me nothing but that he's a shortstop at this point," added Fox. "I would say, not to compare, but [Bogaerts' and Jeter's] paths are very similar. ... I would say Xander is probably a little more efficient fundamentally right now than Derek was [at 20]."
That's of considerable importance in determining Bogaers' potential on-field impact. The average American League shortstop this year is hitting .249 with a .303 OBP and .363 slugging mark. The average AL third baseman has a line of .259/.317/.423. That's a pretty considerable difference in terms of offensive baseline, suggesting that if Bogaerts can stay at short, his bat would represent an enormous advantage relative to average expectations for the position.
PERFORMANCE, AGE, APTITUDE
Minor league performance is all about context. It's well and good for the Crash Davises of the world to launch 25 homers as 29-year-olds playing against 23-year-olds in Double-A. But such a performance doesn't make a player a prospect.
Prospect status is earned by demonstrating an ability to excel against older competition. Often, there is a learning curve involved: Players get thrown into the deep end, flail for a while and then finally gain comfort with the water and start treading water before swimming.
Will Middlebrooks represents a tremendous example of the phenomenon. He was overmatched at the start of 2008 in Short-Season Single-A Lowell and again at the start of 2009 in Single-A Greenville, but worked through his struggles to gain respectability in those leagues. He offered glimpses of an ability to excel in 2010 in High-A Salem, earning All-Star honors and then tailing off, before maturing into a dominant player and the Sox' top prospect in Double-A Portland in 2011 and a big leaguer by last year. Flail, tread, swim.
Bogaerts has never flailed. And, by and large, he's never treaded. In the piranha-infested waters that are the competition of the minor leagues, Bogaerts has gone all Michael Phelps on the schools of hungry fish he's left in his wake.
His level-by-level history since debuting with U.S. affiliates in 2011:
2011: SINGLE-A GREENVILLE (SOUTH ATLANTIC LEAGUE)
18 years old (fourth-youngest in South Atlantic Leauge -- behind only Jurickson Profar, Gary Sanchez, Bryce Harper)
72 games, .260 average, .324 OBP, .509 slugging, 16 homers
League average: .260/.332/.392
2012: HIGH-A SALEM (CAROLINA LEAGUE)
19 years old (third-youngest in Carolina League -- behind only Cheslor Cuthbert and Hanser Alberto)
104 games, .302 average, .378 OBP, .505 slugging, 15 homers
League average: .257/.327/.390
2012: DOUBLE-A PORTLAND (EASTERN LEAGUE)
19 years old (youngest in Eastern League)
23 games, .326 average, .351 OBP, .598 slugging, 5 homers
League average: .260/.330/.392
2013: DOUBLE-A PORTLAND (EASTERN LEAGUE)
20 years old (youngest in Eastern League)
56 games, .311 average, .407 OBP, .502 slugging, 6 homers
League average: .255/.332/.391
Bogaerts has never been anything but one of the youngest players at his level. And he has never been anything but one of the better performers -- if not one of the best performers -- in any of his leagues. He has been challenged repeatedly. He has responded every time.
Indeed, while his power numbers thus far this year have been modest compared to either the 15 homers he smashed in half a season in Greenville in 2011 or the 20 he clubbed last year (in the process becoming the first Sox teenager to hit 20 or more homers at any level since the days of Tony Conigliaro almost a half-century earlier), that reflects considerably on the cold-weather environment where he played this spring rather than on any concerns that his power is anything but legit.
"Given the weather in April, power in general in Portland is not something that happens as much in April as it does over the summer months," said Crockett. "Of late, he started to have more extra-base hits. On the whole, we're still seeing him drive the ball. He's still using the gaps, when he's at his best as a hitter. He's certainly showing the same power and ability to drive the ball in batting practice. There's zero concern on our end, on my end, about anything like that. He's put up very good numbers and driven the ball effectively in Portland."
Given how central age is when evaluating a prospect's performance, it's worth looking at a broad sample of 20-year-olds. Bogaerts this year became the first Eastern League 20-year-old to hit at least .300, get on base at a clip of .400 or better and slug .500 or better since former Yankees prospect Nick Johnson -- a first baseman -- pulled off that trifecta in 1999. Using Johnson and Bogaerts as the bookends of a 15-year span, it doesn't take long to realize how special the Sox prospect's performance was this spring.
There have been 38 position players in the Eastern League at age 20 or younger since 1999. Illustrious members of that group include Manny Machado, Anthony Rizzo, Andrew McCutchen, Ryan Zimmerman, Joe Mauer, Jose Reyes, Adrian Gonzalez, Brandon Phillips and Jimmy Rollins, among others. Bogaers has taken a back seat to none in what he did in Double-A at that age, and indeed, he's outperformed most.
His performance this year was little short of dazzling. After starting slowly while recovering from the dislocation of the World Baseball Classic (travel around the world, consequent jet lag, irregular playing time, positional moves, etc.), Bogaerts made the adjustment to a heavy diet of breaking balls starting around mid-April. Since April 16 in Double-A, he was hitting .343 (fourth in the league in that time) with a .444 OBP (second) and .579 slugging mark (second).
In a more recent two-week stretch, he was peerless. Starting with a two-homer game on May 29, Bogaerts hit .452 with a .571 OBP, .881 slugging mark and four homers in a 13-game stretch.
"He's really come on offensively and I think the defense for the most part has been pretty steady throughout the course of the year. Certainly of late, he's swung the bat well. Some of the most impressive stuff he's done is the way he's controlled the strike zone, he's handled the manner he's been attacked by Double-A pitching with a lot of off-speed stuff and a lot of it outside the zone," said Red Sox farm director Ben Crockett. "Looking at the success he had in Double-A last year, the one thing you could say was that was the one thing he could do a little bit better -- the strikeout to walk and the ability to take what's given to him. I think that's been a huge adjustment that he's shown this year.
"As the pitching got better in Double-A and he was here for more time, he made that adjustment. That made it the right time after 75 or so games played here in Double-A that he was ready to be challenged. He beat the league and it was an extended period of time."
That, in turn, positioned him to continue getting thrown into deeper and deeper waters. Bogaerts is not merely pushing the envelope. He's been doing so at an age where even potential stars often get overwhelmed by more experienced and mature competition. He is being pitched in a fashion that is completely different from the way he was pitched last year in both Double-A and High-A Salem, which was completely different from the way he was attacked in Single-A Greenville.
Yet he keeps adjusting, keeps dominating. And that is why his promise is so glimmering, his potential unlikely anything the Sox have seen in ages.
"Doing it at a younger age against competition that has a lot more experience, a lot more repetitions, just shows the advancement of the player," said Crockett. "When the player is playing against players that are not his peers and still having success, it bodes well for continued success against guys with more experience, guys with more game reps in the big leagues. It bodes well for the mental side and again the physical skill set."
Make no mistake -- there are areas where Bogaerts needs to continue refining. The Sox want to see him continue his improvement on defense, particularly when it comes to steadiness of fundamentals understanding positioning and anticipating game situations. Still, those represent finishing touches of a development process rather than an exposure of fundamental flaws.
The time for Bogaerts is coming. The footsteps of his rapid sprint through the system are being heard in the majors. There are no guarantees, but clearly, as he moves up the chain, the anticipation for his arrival in the big leagues -- perhaps even this year, helping to explain why the Sox will expose him to multiple positions -- already is apparent.
"This is looks to be a pretty special player. He's well ahead of the age curve, being at Triple-A at 20," Sox manager John Farrell told reporters in Baltimore. "You see the tools, you see the ability but you get to know the guy and see how he acts, the guy lights up the room when he walks into it. He's got that charisma, he's got a lot going for him.''