By now you may or may not have seen Xander Bogaerts. But you've heard about him, and you likely have a set of expectations about what he can do.
A 30-homer-a-year shortstop? Sure. Hanley Ramirez? Why not. Manny Machado? Seems fair. Henry Aaron at shortstop? Call him Hank. Willie Mays? Say hey.
Obviously, there is a degree of exaggeration in such a characterization. Nonetheless, it's clear that the anticipation for Bogaerts is breathless -- and with good reason. Bogaerts is a spectacularly talented young player, someone who at 20 has found a way to deliver elite performance at every level at which he's played.
Still, the degree of hype preceding his arrival to the big leagues is startling. The idea that his performance is being tracked on a near-daily basis for clues as to whether today is the day of his call-up represents a drastic departure from the typical low-key prelude to a big league debut. Even among hyped Red Sox prospects, Bogaerts may represent the most hyped and celebrated prior to his big league debut of all time, given his skill set in combination with the availability of information about day-to-day performances in the minor leagues.
On the one hand, it's absurd. In many ways, it's way too early to say whether Bogaerts is the next great offensive shortstop or even the next Machado -- just as it will be absurd to draw conclusions about the type of big leaguer he'll be if/when he gets that first exposure to the big leagues.
"Everyone says he's the next whoever -- you can't put those expectations on somebody until they're here and have a lot of at-bats and try to find who they are. You could be selling him short. He may be better than whoever they're comparing him to. We'll see," noted Dustin Pedroia, a player who can experienced a rush to judgment in September 2006 and April 2007. "That's the thing you can't get caught up in. If they're high expectations or low expectations, you've got to be yourself. You've got to find a way to do what you do. When everyone said [in 2006] my swing was too big and won't play here, here we are. Same swing. Still going."
Pedroia did not let perception affect his career. The fact that he possessed the necessary self-confidence to remain secure in his abilities despite his very public struggles attested to another aspect of the prospect hype machine: Its value.
By virtue of the market where they play, the limitless hopes for players as well as the impassioned following they face, members of the Red Sox must learn to deal with and play through immense expectations. Some, like Pedroia, not only live up to them but exceed them. Others face periods of struggle with perception.
Ultimately, however, the fact that the players must learn to deal with hype and judgment even before they reach the big leagues can be a valuable experience in preparing them for what will greet them once they arrive. The expectations for top prospects when they arrive in Boston are enormous -- so they might as well be enormous before they get there as well.
"Playing in the big leagues is extremely difficult. It's obviously the top of the food chain. There's no easy way around it. There's no hiding. When you're up there in front of 37,000 people, there's no way of hiding, whether you're hyped or not. You're being asked to perform under a microscope," said Red Sox assistant GM Mike Hazen. "Either you've performed to get to the big leagues, in which case you've had to perform through the prospect hype, or in the big leagues, you have to perform through the hype because the hype is there no matter what. It's not hype. It's expectations. For that player, it adds a little complexity that helps, quite frankly, because I think it further prepares them for what they're about to get themselves into."
Bogaerts has lived up to expectations -- exceeded them, even -- in each of his brief stops up the ladder. But that doesn't mean that the 20-year-old won't struggle upon his arrival to the big leagues. There's little relationship between talent/potential and performance in a player's initial exposure to the big leagues. And that is where the prospect hype machine creates a distorted view of likelier realities.
Pedroia, of course, hit .191 with a .258 OBP over 31 games in his season-ending callup in 2006, then looked overmatched at times in April 2007, hitting .182 with a .308 OBP and .236 slugging mark before he emerged as one of the best second baseman in the big leagues starting in May of that year.
"It's the highest level. The No. 1 pitcher you see in the minor leagues, you face every day here. There's an adjustment period," explained Pedroia. "Once you get up here, you've got to find out, you've got to make your own adjustments. Just because you had numbers in the minor leagues, that doesn't mean that's the type of player you'll be up here. You've got to make adjustments, find what makes you good. Because at this level, they find your weakness and try to exploit it until you make adjustments. Guys who find a way to do that quickly are the ones who are really good. From what I hear, [Bogaerts] makes adjustments at every level and finds a way to have quality at-bats. Usually when guys do that, you can tell that they'll be really successful."
That, in turn, points to the Machado possibility. But while Machado proved a difference-maker for the Orioles in the final two months of 2012, hitting .262/.294/.445 with seven homers and 18 extra-base hits in 51 games, Orioles manager Buck Showalter acknowledged that the O's had few expectations for what he might be able to offer as a hitter during that stretch. Showalter said that anyone who pretended to know what Machado would be able to do at the plate was "trying to portray themselves as Johnny SuperScout."
After all, it had been just one year earlier that Mike Trout -- one of the most talented young players that baseball has seen in decades -- hit just .163 with a .213 OBP and .279 slugging mark in his first 14-game look at the big leagues in July 2011. Realistically, teams have to be prepared for players to struggle in their first exposure to the big leagues. They might not -- Machado represents one outlier, Jacoby Ellsbury in 2007 another and someone like Yasiel Puig this year yet another -- but it's virtually impossible to predict immediate success with any degree of confidence.
Though the team does its best to minimize the adjustment period upon a player's first callup through such undertakings as the Rookie Development Program, that is true of the Sox with Bogaerts whenever he gets his first opportunity as well.
"We always expect that transition to take place," said Hazen, speaking generally of all prospects who are called up to the big leagues. "The challenging part is, where we are in the season, a two-month sprint to the finish, we need to be careful that the trough, so to speak, is not too low. There's a playing expectation for the players that come up now to help us win games. We need to be mindful, need to be able to answer those questions. That goes back to [PawSox manager Gary DiSarcina], trusting him and his evaluation ability, telling [Sox manager John Farrell] what he's seeing and what he thinks this guy can do and not do.
"But nobody expects any player to come up and carry the load for the Boston Red Sox by themselves," he continued. "We want him to be one of nine guys and making contributions in any way possible. That doesn't mean hitting home runs and getting hits. It means contributing to the lineup. The way our lineup is constructed, that means grinding out at-bats, make sure the lineup flips over so the top of the order gets to hit with runners on base.
"The little things -- defensive responsibilities with positioning. Being locked in with the coaching staff and making sure they're preparing well for each game they play. Those things can be controlled," Hazen said. "They can do all those things with pretty little effort given the talent level. If the hits come and [a young player transitioning to the big leagues] performs on offense, that's a plus."
The front office typically tries to measure expectations, make them realistic. In their eyes, it's not difficult to separate talent and potential from likely performance in that first big league exposure.
But the perspective of the public and even the player himself can be different. That, in turn, can create forms of pressure that make it more difficult to perform up to the level of the sky-high hype.
"Not being here before and then you come up and feel like you have to live up to everything you've heard that's being spoken about you, it can get to you in a couple ways. You've just got to come up and play the game to win," said Clay Buchholz, who threw a no-hitter in his second career start, was heralded by many as the top prospect in all of baseball entering 2008 and then fell flat on his face with a 6.75 ERA that led to a demotion that year. "A guy who has that much potential and is playing as well as [Bogaerts is] playing, he's a good enough player to live up to expectations, but sometimes you go through struggles and you have to cope with struggling.
"It happens to every player at this level. How do you make yourself a better player from that? Seeing a little bit of him in spring training, he's got all the skills and tools to be an everyday player here. But sometimes it's a little difficult coming up here with all the hype, win a game with your first pitch seen in the big leagues as a hitter and trying to strike someone out with your first pitch in the big leagues. You've just got to take it in stride, let the chips fall where they may."
"I think here, I think it's a lot more difficult than it is in a lot of places -- New York, Philly, the bigger markets -- just because you have so much hype and so much expectation that it's almost like you can't fulfill it right away," recalled Jon Lester, himself a veteran of the cycle of great expectations, amplified to sky-high levels by a strong early performance, only to yield to the conclusion in 2006 (prior to his diagnosis with cancer) that he had limitations in both stuff and pitch efficiency that would make it difficult for him to reach his anticipated potential. "I tell all the young guys -- like [Jackie Bradley Jr.] in spring training -- don't believe it. Don't read it. They're going to make you out to be Babe Ruth. You're not. You're going to struggle."
Everything that Bogaerts has done to date in his baseball life suggests that the period of struggle when he does reach the majors -- whenever that is -- may be relatively brief. In both performance and makeup, he looks like a player who will be able to contribute to a winning team relatively early in his big league career.
"He's an extremely impressive player. He's mature. He's intelligent. He's a very good athlete. And he's performed. So, he's done a lot of the things that we look for when you're looking at this type of player in Triple-A," said Hazen. "He still has some technical things to work on at multiple positions and probably at the plate that need to be enhanced in order to take his game to that next level and beyond. We're confident he's going to do that. But there's still a level of experience that needs to be attained, probably more on the defensive side than the offensive side, but there's still a raw number of at-bats that he's going to have to see.
"There's still a lot of experiential things that he's going to have to attain prior to being the player he's going to be. But at this point, he's done everything we've asked. He's worked hard. He's a good teammate. He listens. Those are important skills."
All of that bodes very, very well for his long-term future. If one was to bet on a minor leaguer emerging as a star, Bogaerts checks every box in the profile.
Nonetheless, the fact that the odds favor a period of transition suggest that it would be misguided to view him as the player who can transform the Sox over the season's final weeks and entering the postseason. He might -- Jonathan Papelbon, Ellsbury, etc. -- but there's also a very real possibility that even at the point of doing everything he needs to do to be ready for a call-up, he won't be quite ready for primetime.
No shame in that. Bogaerts would certainly be anything but alone if that proves the case, if and more likely when he does get his big league opportunity this year. That is the reality that looms behind the hype.