It is not merely a position but an identity. And so it was that the news that the Red Sox had re-signed Stephen Drew crashed down upon Xander Bogaerts like a ton of bricks.
"My heart is always at shortstop, but they felt we're a better team with him, so as I said, that's why they went out and got him. And I was just feeling so good over there. But they made the decision that they have to make," Bogaerts said with a frown. "I worked so hard at being there. Just now I started feeling comfortable out there, but they did what they have to do.
"I definitely view myself as a shortstop," he added. "I keep saying that every day. But I guess now I'll be on the other side."
On the one hand, the team's thinking should be clear enough. Bogaerts is amidst a process of acclimation to shortstop at the big league level. He's developing there. The Sox are in a position where they can ill afford growing pains right now -- they need to have their best team on the field immediately to try to find their footing and escape the run of poor play that now has the team five games deep into its longest losing streak since 2012.
Drew helps -- immediately. His seven years in the league have made him a shortstop of considerable abilities, one whose defense proved a game-changer in the postseason even as he endured what felt like weeks between hits.
"He's an above-average defender. We lived that a year ago. He played an exceptional shortstop, particularly in October," said Sox manager John Farrell. "To have that experience and that dependability, I think it'll go a long way to stabilizing the left side of the infield."
And while drought characterized the end of his season as a hitter, during the regular season Drew offered considerable offensive impact. His .253/.333/.444 line with 13 homers defined him as one of the top-producing shortstops in the American League. His .284/.377/.498 line against right-handers represented an obvious path to an upgrade for a Sox team that now is an American League-worst 10-19 against right-handed starters.
Given the considerable struggles of Will Middlebrooks this year (.197/.305/.324, including .143/.276/.286 against right-handers), and the fact that he's currently on the DL, it wasn't hard to understand the Sox' motivation to re-sign Drew for the prorated qualifying offer.
But as much as the Sox wanted to reassure Bogaerts that this move wasn't a condemnation of his defense at shortstop, it seemed that the message might be one that was difficult to receive.
Bogaerts grew up a shortstop, daydreamed of being a big league shortstop, had spent his entire life playing shortstop until his introduction to third base last year (to accelerate his path to the big leagues), worked tirelessly both before and during the season to position himself, in his mind, to be a shortstop.
Though he'd struggled at times, particularly in April, in the field this year, Bogaerts put in the time and work with infield coach Brian Butterfield to get better. He remains a work in progress at the position, but Bogaerts could see the progress. And so it was that the message that came from Farrell on Tuesday represented a jolt that left the 21-year-old on uncertain footing.
On the one hand, Farrell made clear to Bogaerts that the Sox believe in him as a shortstop going forward. On the other hand, he offered a message that another player is the better option -- a message that Bogaerts has been unaccustomed to encountering in his baseball upbringing.
"We were satisfied [with Bogaerts at shortstop], but we knew there were going to be things we had to be aware of, whether it was range, positioning, learning the opposition and the swings and reading swings that took place," said Farrell. "We still see Xander as a shortstop. That was explained very clearly to Xander. This shouldn't take away, in his mind, what our long-term view of him is. Xander is still a very good-looking young player and a good-looking young shortstop."
But while Bogaerts, too, noted, "I definitely view myself as a shortstop," the news that the Sox now expect him to work primarily -- though not exclusively (he could still see starts at short against left-handed starting pitchers and at times when Drew is not in the lineup) -- at third base hung over him during the game.
In the first inning, he sailed a throw over the head of Mike Napoli for his first error in 17 games. Later, he couldn't get a handle on a routine grounder to his right, and so he endured the first two-error game of his big league career. And he acknowledged that the game was one in which, especially in the field, his mind was crowded.
"I mean, there was a lot going on today," he said. "I don't want to make no excuses, but it was definitely a tough day."
It is not unprecedented for a player to be moved off of shortstop based on the potential to upgrade a team only to move back there in a different roster scenario down the road. A pair of former Red Sox, Marco Scutaro and Jed Lowrie, were moved off of short at stages of their career before returning to that position on a full-time basis. Cal Ripken, who entered pro ball as a shortstop, was groomed primarily as a third baseman in the upper minors and at the start of his big league career before heading back to short.
And so, even as he prepares to play a significant amount of third base going forward this year, there is a very real possibility that Bogaerts will be the Red Sox' Opening Day shortstop again in 2015. But even if that transpires, he now may be left to wonder whether that assignment is tenuous, whether another struggle by the team will convince the Sox that they cannot wait before making a move for another option. And with Deven Marrero enjoying a standout performance as both a well above-average defender and a hitter with the skills to translate to average, on-base ability and doubles, it's not hard to imagine that the Sox won't have to look far to find the potential for more questions about their future at shortstop.
On the one hand, it's a great "problem" for an organization to have.
The presence of multiple players with shortstop skills who can occupy multiple positions around the diamond offers the potential for airtight defense. It's worth noting that Dustin Pedroia spent his life as an elite defensive shortstop through his amateur career and the minors before finding a big league home at second base; his skills have translated to that position to make him one of the best defensive second basemen of his generation, an anchor of the Red Sox infield.
Moreover, the possibility of having versatility and options is a huge asset to a team in creating a roster. If a team has two everyday players who are capable of playing short, it transforms how the rest of the team can be constructed, offering, for instance, the possibility of constructing a platoon at another position.
Unquestionably, the Sox now possess a better, deeper roster now than they did before reaching their agreement with Drew on Tuesday.
"He's a great player. The more great players we add, the better our team is going to be," Pedroia said of Drew. "Obviously, what he did last year to help us win a World Series, he's pretty valuable."
The Sox believe that Bogaerts will embrace that broader view, that his uncommon maturity -- the same trait that allowed him to thrive under the postseason spotlight -- will permit him to move beyond any initial disappointment.
"Xander is a really unique guy. He's gifted as a baseball player, but also really a mature, intelligent guy," general manager Ben Cherington said on The Bradfo Show.
"I think Xander wants to do anything he can to help the team win. We've already seen him play different positions in order to do that. What we've seen from Xander this year is, here's a young guy who has taken on a high-responsibility position, shortstop for the Boston Red Sox, and probably had a couple of bumps in the road defensively early on but has continued to work really hard, and that part of his game has seemed to stabilize over the last 10 days to two weeks. He looks more comfortable out there.
"We know he's going to hit. We know there's huge offensive upside. What we're trying to do is help him any way we can become the big leaguer he can be. We see him as a shortstop, we always have. We saw him as a shortstop last year when he was playing third base in the playoffs. We would expect anybody on the team if at some point we came to them and said, 'The team needs this ...' We would help anybody on the team who would say, 'OK, whatever it takes to win.' I'm sure Xander would do that. That doesn't mean anything other than hopefully we have a bunch of good team guys. We like the job he's done at shortstop and certainly feel he can play that position."
But in the very near future, Bogaerts won't be at that position, the one where he feels most at home. He vowed to do the work to prepare for whatever position he's asked to play on any given day -- indeed, Bogaerts headed straight out from his meeting with Farrell to take grounders at third -- but on a head-spinning Tuesday, he found it difficult to hide the disappointment of the message that he'd received.
"I've been told everything, a lot of things coming up through the minors, but I always have seen myself as a shortstop and I always worked hard to stay there," said Bogaerts. "I've been doing a lot better. The weather has been getting up so I've been getting a lot more good grips on the ball, but it is what it is."