Entering this season, the offensive expectations for Red Sox infielder Xander Bogaerts were astronomical. Many crowned him the American League’s Rookie of the Year before he even arrived in Fort Myers for spring training.
The phenom’s defensive game was another story. He rose through the minor leagues as a shortstop before getting exposed to third base for the first time last season because Boston already had Stephen Drew cemented at short, while the hot corner was a gaping hole that needed to be plugged.
Insert a 20-year-old from Aruba, and a third World Series championship in the span of a decade was won.
Yes, I know it was more complicated than that, but this kid’s legend is growing faster than Torey Krug’s did for the Bruins in 2013.
Months later, with Drew gone to free agency, Bogaerts was poised to return to his natural position where he had played all but 10 of his 355 career minor league games and just nine of his 30 MLB contests, including the postseason. You all know the story. He struggled defensively (a .962 fielding percentage to that point, accompanied by six errors), Will Middlebrooks stunk all-purposely, and Drew returned from the compensatory-pick-saddled scrap heap. Suddenly, Bogaerts became a third baseman again.
Let me just put this out there: I have no preference as to whether Bogaerts goes on to be a full-time shortstop or third baseman in what, barring injury, should be an illustrious offensive major league career.
However, I am very curious how the Red Sox genuinely view this situation.
On Tuesday, Boston continued its series in Cleveland with its second-consecutive loss. Bogaerts homered for the second-straight night as part of his team-leading 18th multiple-hit performance. He also played third with Drew out of the lineup the night following his season debut. That was the plan, leaving Jonathan Herrera at short.
As recently as May 21, during a conference call to discuss Drew’s addition, general manager Ben Cherington told reporters, “We believe Xander can play shortstop and can play it well. We’ve seen, even over the last two or three weeks, his defense at shortstop stabilize. He’s certainly worked hard at it.
“But we believed last year, in the offseason and in spring training, that he can play short,” he continued. “We still believe that. This move with Stephen is not in any way about a lack of belief that Xander can play short. We’re just trying to make the team better.”
That, by the way, was only three days after Cherington insisted the rookie may need to play the position for a full season in order to evaluate his future in the field.
No matter how you feel about Drew infringing upon the expected youth movement, the move made all the sense in the world.
I’m not one of those people wrapped up in concern about a move to third impeding Bogaerts’ long-term growth at short or his ability to play the position. Like my colleague Chad Finn, I find that argument to be overblown. It sure as hell hasn’t mentally hampered his progress at the plate, where he’s hitting .387 with three homers, 11 extra-base hits, and nine RBI in 15 games since learning his predecessor would be making a Jay Leno-like return.
Bogaerts was disappointed by the news, but took it in stride. While waiting for Drew to emerge from his minor league tune-up, he improved both offensively and defensively as if he’d been given reason to celebrate rather than pout.
Because of that, I expected Bogaerts to be at shortstop rather than third with Drew out of the lineup against the Indians. If the Red Sox truly envision a future with Bogaerts regularly seeing time there, it seems illogical not to take advantage when there’s an opportunity. Herrera is nothing more than a place-holder.
“For the time being, in getting to know Xander even more and how he responds to things, we would put him at third base and leave him there rather than bounce back and forth,” the manager said over the weekend. “Down the line, if there’s two righthanded hitters that could play the right side of the infield, that might have us put him back at shortstop but, where we are right now, we just want to get Xander more acclimated and comfortable and leave him at third for the time being.”
If Bogaerts could get acclimated and comfortable at a new position in the middle of October as a first-time big leaguer in perhaps (but hopefully not) the most meaningful games he’ll ever play, I’m not all that worried about him keeping his wits in June for a team fighting to climb back over the .500 threshold.
After Tuesday’s defeat, Bogaerts was asked how he’s handling the temporarily-permanent transition to third after only two days.
“It’s a process,” he admitted. “I feel I’m getting there but it’ll definitely take a few days.”
As for whether it will impact his offense, he stated, “Defense is defense, offense is offense. You try to go out there and get all the grounders, throw good throws over there and get an out, and when you’re up there, try to get on base.”
At only 21, Bogaerts is as mature as kids come. He’s unfazed by pressure, comfortable in the substantial moments, and has all of the confidence - but none of the ego - of someone expected to live up to a staggering amount of hype.
While it may matter to him where he plays in the field – he wears the No. 2 as a tribute to his idol and career Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter – he’s going to be great no matter his role. Right about now, I’d have faith in Bogaerts coming out of the bullpen to setup Koji Uehara.
If the Red Sox organization realistically sees Bogaerts manning short down the line (or is leaving room for the possibility), there’s absolutely no harm in putting him there on nights Drew is on the bench. He’ll only get more comfortable at the position – where he made great strides and played flawless defense in the dozen games prior to Drew’s arrival – and his efforts at third won’t suffer. As it is, he’s an above-average presence on the corner.
But if the Sox view him as a third baseman, by all means, leave him there, inform the future Hall of Famer of their decision, and end the discussion. Then we can bide our time until Deven Marrero arrives and start brainstorming a new position (or home) for Garin Cecchini.
Publicly, the Red Sox have been all over the map in recent weeks and months. Hopefully there’s been more clarity internally. Either way, at least Bogaerts doesn't seem too worried about it.
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