In what is shaping up as at least a semi-fascinating final few days of July, it represents perhaps the most interesting question for the Red Sox heading toward the non-waiver trade deadline.
What are they going to do at third base?
Heading into Tuesday, there was a faction of the organization that had identified finding an offensive upgrade at the position as a priority. Prior to Brandon Snyder clanging his solo home run off the right field foul pole Monday night, Red Sox third basemen had combined to hit .203 with a .526 OPS for July.
More than a few parties to the Sox' decision-making process want the team to pursue Michael Young, the 36-year-old whose diminished defensive skills are made palatable due to his right-handed-hitting offensive capabilities and clubhouse presence. (Red Sox first baseman Mike Napoli calls Young one of the best clubhouse leaders he has ever seen.)
It's not like Young has set the world on fire this season, heading into Tuesday hitting .273 with a .743 OPS and seven home runs. But the idea of having some sort of veteran presence on the left side of the infield heading into the final few months appears to be preferable to wondering if Jose Iglesias is going to rediscover anything close to his May/June offensive impact.
But what if the cost for Young is too high?
With one day left before the deadline, the Red Sox were still uncomfortable with Philadelphia's asking price. And while (unlike Cliff Lee and Jonathan Papelbon) there would seem to be some motivation for the Phillies to deal Young (whose contract expires after this season), there are other suitors for the infielder, allowing the Phillies a measure of leverage.
The Red Sox could take another shot at getting Will Middlebrooks going at the major-league level. But while the third baseman continues to make strides in his plate discipline, there has been a recent downturn in production at Pawtucket of late after a healthy run of four straight, two-hit games last week. He also continues to manage a balky lower back.
That leaves us with Xander Bogaerts.
Bogaerts played his fifth game at third base Monday night, continuing to impress at the position. ("Very much like [Iglesias], they're such good athletes … It's more just getting them used to an angle," said Pawtucket manager Gary DiSarcina Friday. "I would be more nervous putting Bogie at second. He's played [five] games over there and he's done pretty well.")
After collecting two more hits Monday night, Bogaerts is hitting .279 with an .863 OPS since his mid-year promotion to Pawtucket. In his last 10 games, the righty hitter has a .361 batting average and 1.048 OPS. He's reached base in 26 straight games since June 29, hitting .326 with a .439 OBP, .528 slugging mark and more walks (17) than strikeouts (15) in that stretch.
Meanwhile, he seems to maturing -- both physically and mentally -- at an extremely rapid pace.
"I'm enjoying him while I have him," DiSarcina said. "He has a lot to learn. He has a lot to learn in many phases of the game. It's not just hitting. But he's capable of doing it. He's going to be an impact player, no doubt. It's just a matter of time."
But, as Farrell hinted at when asked about the 20-year-old prior to Monday night's game against the Rays, there is still work to be done. And while the Red Sox could call up Bogaerts and try to catch lightning in a bottle for the stretch drive, a pennant race isn't exactly the ideal place to be uncovering what it takes to be a major-leaguer.
As DiSarcina pointed out, Bogaerts is moving fast down the road towards the big leagues, but there is still plenty of pavement to go.
"Being with him on a daily basis I see all the warts, I see the immaturity, I see the greenness," the PawSox manager said. "I see the things he does in a game you don't see in a box score.
"It's hard to quantify when he's going to be ready, or say, 'He just needs one more week of seasoning,' because the needs of a ball club call. I saw [Mike] Trout for 45 games in Double-A and the big leagued hadn't called him up yet until Peter Bourjos pulled a hamstring. It's so random. It's hard to say whose time schedule your on."
Some of Bogaerts' areas for improvement are tangible for the Red Sox, but easily corrected. For instance, when the shortstop lost a ball in the sun because he failed to secure a pair of sunglasses, costing his starting pitcher 20 additional tosses, it didn't take long to make him understand the importance of bringing along the correct equipment.
While his defense isn't refined, what he currently delivers seems certainly good enough for now.
"He's not your typical, fundamental Alan Trammell, or Mike Bordick or Omar Vizquel, fundamental shortstop," DiSarcina said. "He's not a wide-based, over-the-top throwing shortstop. He does things a little bit unconventional. He does things a little bit unconventional, but he fields the ball properly and when he does he does two or three things that really allow him to catch the ball. He has great hand-eye coordination. He has great glove presentation. When that ball comes to him his glove is wide open. And he has really strong hands. For me, it's irrelevant for me to say he can play shortstop in the big leagues. He's making the plays. It doesn't have to be pretty.
"You think two or three years down the road and think about how big this kid is going to be, because he does look bigger every week I see him."
But there are a few intricacies that major league teams could quickly identify, sending both Bogaerts and the Red Sox down an uncomfortable road for the final few months.
DiSarcina offers some examples:
Baserunning: "For me, he has to work on his baserunning. He needs to get better leads. He needs to be more in-tune with things. It's not because he's not paying attention. He's 20 years old. Just the little things, like picking up signs right away. Having secondary leads. What Bogie missed was that time up in spring training with [manager John Farrell], [bench coach Torey Lovullo] and [third base coach Brian Butterfield], how important they stressed it. We had four stations on four different days with Butter going through every situation, the stressing of the fundamentals of baserunning … he missed it. He's behind, in my opinion. So it's my job down here to kind of catch him up and give him bits and pieces down here."
Infield play: "One of the things he needs to do a little bit better are on cuts and relays. He's not there yet. When a man is on first and a ball is hit in the right-center field gap, he has to think where he's going to go. You can see he thinks and then reacts. That's just reps. He's flown through the system here."
Hitting: "He's like any young kid, he tries to stay inside everything. They get up here and the inner-third becomes exposed. We saw it with [Jackie Bradley Jr.] earlier in the year, 'Oh my goodness, there's an inner-third of the plate?' You have to start pulling, but pulling the right way. Xander's not there yet. He hasn't hit a ball hard down the third-base line, or hard in the hole yet. All of his balls, and especially his home run balls, have been from left-center to the right-field foul pole. That takes time. He hasn't learned that bat path yet."
Bogaerts is figuring it out, but the Red Sox are also intent on him continuing the process in the right setting. If they get Young, the decision on where that learning curve continues is a no-brainer. If not? A leap of faith might be in the works.
"I think he's a quick learner, but it has to be small steps. You can't force-feed him a lot," DiSarcina said. "What he's really good at is he asked questions. Everyone learns differently. Some are verbals. Some are visual. For him, it's feeling it and going through it."