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Major obstacle

Sox have high hopes for Anderson, but the new first baseman is pretty good, too

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / February 24, 2011

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FORT MYERS, Fla. — Nobody understands Lars Anderson’s predicament more than Adrian Gonzalez.

Gonzalez, the first overall pick in the 2000 draft by the Marlins, had a very productive Derrek Lee blocking his way to the majors. The Marlins traded Gonzalez to Texas, where Gonzalez was blocked again by Mark Teixeira. The Rangers traded Gonzalez to San Diego, where Ryan Klesko was the starting first baseman.

But from that frustrating beginning evolved one of the best first basemen in baseball. Gonzalez is now on the verge of a huge contract extension with the Red Sox that will make him one of the highest-paid players in baseball.

So, Mr. Anderson, there is hope.

“Tito [Terry Francona] told me, ‘If you’re good enough to play in the big leagues, you’re going to play in the big leagues,’ ’’ said Anderson. “That’s what I’m going by right now.’’

The good news for Anderson is that his main competition within the organization, Anthony Rizzo, was traded to San Diego in the Gonzalez deal. Rizzo was the Double A first baseman last season, Anderson the Triple A first baseman. But Rizzo’s stock rose while Anderson’s dropped.

It’s not that Anderson is no longer a prospect. But after a stellar Double A start, things dipped a bit in Pawtucket, and when he came to Boston following Kevin Youkilis’s thumb surgery, he didn’t look quite ready for the majors.

Anderson, who turned 23 last September, hit .200 in 35 at-bats with the Red Sox.

“The best thing I can say to him is have the best year you can,’’ said Gonzalez. “For me, I went to the manager and I said I’ll play anywhere. I’ll play the outfield, it doesn’t matter to me. I just want to play.

“You never want to see it happen, but guys could always get hurt and there could be trades.’’

In Gonzalez’s case, each trade yielded a better situation. But even in San Diego, staring him straight in the face was the veteran Klesko.

“I felt if I worked as hard as I could, something would pop up,’’ said Gonzalez. “I hate to say it, but I got my opportunity because of someone’s else’s injury, because when I went to San Diego, Ryan Klesko got hurt and he was the first baseman.’’

This situation is a little different in that Anderson, by his own admission and the evaluation of general manager Theo Epstein, isn’t quite ready for prime time.

“Yeah, obviously, it affects it a little bit,’’ Anderson said. “Even if they didn’t sign Adrian, it’s not like I’d be playing in Boston this year. I think my position would have been the same starting the year.

“Obviously it’s a little more blocked now, but with an organization like Boston, it’s tough for a guy to break in. The bright spot is you watch players like this play and that can be really be helpful in the long run.’’

Anderson said his first reaction to the trade was not about taking a back seat to Gonzalez.

“I was kind of bummed, because I’m really good friends with Rizzo and Casey [Kelly],’’ he said, “but as I thought about it, this is really great for this organization to get someone like Adrian Gonzalez and to have a guy like that around that I can learn from.

“He’s at the top of the list as far as first basemen and hitters. So I get to watch him every day.’’

“We talked to him at the outset this spring, and the message was focus on what you can control,’’ Epstein said. “Frankly, there’s still work for him to do at Triple A.

“He had a big start of the season at Double A and did a lot of things well. Played good defense, held his own. There’s a lot more offensive potential that can come out this year at Triple A.

“We basically told him, ‘When it’s time for you to be a big leaguer, these things have a way of working themselves out.’ He’s 23, there’s plenty of opportunity here, and you never know how a career is going to evolve.

“Lars has made so much progress defensively. He’s made progress in terms of finding a mind-set where he can enjoy the game, focus at-bat to at-bat. As he develops more of a comfort level at Triple A and then the big leagues, we’re going to see it manifest itself into some power as well.’’

Anderson, an 18th-round pick in the 2006 draft, had early success in the lower levels, then struggled with a .233 average in Portland in 2009. But early in 2010, he was hitting a robust .355 with five homers in 62 at-bats when he was recalled to Pawtucket. The Sox wanted to keep Rizzo moving, and therefore Anderson moved as well. Too soon?

“We thought it was the right time,’’ Epstein said. “A lot of factors go into that. Not only did he not have anything to prove at Double A, but we didn’t feel like he was going to get a lot out of staying in the Eastern League.

“We felt that Triple A would challenge him appropriately, and I think it did, and it was the right place for his development last year.

“With him, it’s maintaining confidence offensively, knowing himself and knowing his approach and having confidence in that. He tends to be a searcher offensively, looking for that comfort zone, which is a natural part of your maturation as a player and becoming a big leaguer.’’

Gonzalez wants to be a mentor to Anderson.

“I’m all about everybody doing good,’’ he said. “I don’t fear losing a position or worry about who’s coming up. I’m going to do the best I can. That’s what will get the organization to be good.’’

There are other options for Anderson. He could be the DH if the Sox part company with David Ortiz after this season. He certainly would be the player the team goes to should an injury occur to Gonzalez. He also could be trade bait, though Epstein downplayed that.

“I wouldn’t say that’s the case necessarily,’’ said Epstein. “First of all, Adrian’s only signed through 2011. We’ll see how that plays out and see if we can extend him. Even beyond that, there’s the DH position.

“Sometimes we overanalyze these things and they have a way of working themselves out.’’

Anderson is realistic about what’s ahead. He knows he’s heading to Triple A to complete his development, but once that’s checked off, he might be stuck in slow motion for a while.

When asked if he would like to again regain “top prospect’’ status, Anderson said, “Here’s a quote: A prospect is a player who has never made it. So I don’t aspire to be a prospect. I aspire to be a big leaguer. I just want to play. I don’t care where.’’

That was precisely Gonzalez’s approach.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.

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