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Touching All the Bases

Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Trying to Answer Those Lingering Questions

Nick Cafardo asked a question in his Sunday Notes column that I figure has crossed all Red Sox' fans minds this season. No, not Why does Clay Buchholz look like he hasn't slept since the night of his 2007 no-hitter? Though, now that you mention it, that is also a legit query.

Nick asked this, essentially:

How good will Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley actually be?

The importance of how Ben Cherington and the Red Sox' answer this cannot be exaggerated. Both players entered the season with the expectation that they would be core Red Sox for the next half-dozen years. Both have struggled mightily to the point that skeptics might wonder whether their prolonged slumps are something more troubling.

The Red Sox' internal evaluations of Bogaerts and Bradley are all that matter, and they are a mystery. We don't know what they honestly think of these two players, or how their thinking has changed. Besides, indisputable conclusions are going to be found during their mostly (but not entirely) disappointing rookie seasons.

But there are clues, meaningful clues, to how they should be evaluated going forward and what our expectations should be. I want to get into that, and so I've set this up using various parts of Nick's column as guideposts.

I suppose it sort of looks like the format for the late, dearly missed Fire Joe Morgan blog, but that is for structural reasons more than anything else. This will be gentler, and considerably less entertaining. More like a Mute Harold Reynolds blog, if you will.

The bold type is plucked from Nick's column. Let's go:

[Are their struggles due to] a lack of seasoning for Bogaerts and Bradley? Hurried to the majors? Bogaerts had 225 at-bats at Triple A, Bradley 320.

Let's start with Bradley. He should be ready now. He had an .842 OPS last season at Pawtucket, with 10 homers and a .374 on-base percentage in 374 plate appearances. That was improvement on his .802 OPS in 61 games the previous season in Portland. The progress seemed typical and encouraging.

While I've wondered whether his development was set back by making the big club out of camp in 2013 -- he had just 271 plate appearances above Double A at that point -- his success at Pawtucket last year suggested there were no lingering scars.

So no, I don't think Bradley's struggles are due to a lack of seasoning. They seem due to a slow bat and/or slow pitch recognition. I don't know how he overcomes that. But a return to Pawtucket doesn't seem to be the solution, unless confidence-building is the intent. We already know he can hit there. It's time to do it here.

As for Bogaerts, maybe now we wonder if he needed more time to polish his considerable skills -- he played just 79 games in Double A and 60 in Triple A. That is the fast-track to the bigs right there, perhaps too fast. But to suggest anyone thought he needed more time after the poise and polish he showed last October -- to me, the only Red Sox hitter who inspired more confidence in the World Series was David Ortiz -- would be deliberately revising history. And I leave that nonsense to others.

Players usually show something positive in their rookie seasons. Bradley has been stellar defensively, but his hitting has been off-the-charts bad. Bogaerts hasn’t excelled in either area, though at 21 he’s the youngest Red Sox rookie starter since Ellis Burks in 1987.

I wrote a couple of times in the offseason that Bradley was every bit the defensive peer of Jacoby Ellsbury. I was wrong. He's better, so much better, the best I've ever seen in center field for the Red Sox. And there has been one pleasant surprise: His arm is a legit hose, a defensive weapon.

Offensively? He's Gary Pettis without the wheels, and suggesting a player is Gary Pettis with the wheels would not be a compliment.

Bradley has to show improvement at the plate over the final month and a half. It's imperative. He's 24, and that's approaching the age when a prospect becomes a suspect. Bradley's struggles are far more damning than Bogaerts's simply based on the three-year age difference.

I do wonder whether the Red Sox have already recalibrated their expectations for him. Maybe he'll never hit enough to be more than a terrific fourth outfielder. Or the Marlins' 2016 leadoff hitter.

But man, don't you root for him? I want to see that defense in center field for the next decade. If he can just hit .255 and work a walk once in a while and he'll be as golden as his glove. Hell, I might take .245. OK, .250.

I'd take .250 from Bogaerts, this season at least. His struggles have been well-documented (Nick had stacks of painful stats in the column) and the search for signs of improvement isn't turning up much in the way of immediate hope.

He has a .211/.225/.355 slash-line through 80 second-half plate-appearances. He has a .248 OPS -- yes, OPS -- in August. He's hitting .230/.295/.349 for the season. It ain't pretty.

It's been ugly for a long time now, to the point that this thought creeps into your head: Is the prolonged nature of his slump indicative of a fundamental flaw? I don't believe it is. But we've all wondered as this as dragged on.

It sounds strange to say given that he's still a fledgling big-leaguer, but we need to have longer memories with Bogaerts. As recently as June 3, he had an .859 OPS, with this crazy slash-line: .304/.395/.464. He wasn't a question mark, a struggling rookie, a potentially exaggerated prospect. He was a 21-year-old kid making a case to be an All-Star.

Hell, yes, he's shown something positive in his rookie season. It just feels like it happened longer ago than it actually did.

And let's not forget how young he actually is. Here is the list of Red Sox hitters, since 1967, who had seasons of at least 325 plate-appearances from the ages between 19 and 23. The youngest among semi-regulars is not Ellis Burks.

Pretty good company, especially if you can ignore Glenn Hoffman's name a couple of times. And you still have to believe that his age-22 and -23 seasons will stack up with some of the revered names on this list. If anything, this is a reminder of how young he really is, and how long it takes for even the most brilliant talents (see Dwight Evans) to fulfill their vast promise.

The Red Sox have no idea if Bogaerts is a shortstop or a third baseman.

I believe they absolutely know, and have for a while. Sure, you and I are trying to sort it out, based on the empirical evidence we've gained from watching him at third base last October, at shortstop through May, at third base again in July and July, and now back to short for the remainder of the season.

But the Red Sox? They know so much more than we do, whether we're talking in-house or conventional defensive metrics or, more relevantly, the information they've gathered on his abilities, acumen, and progress along the way since he played his first formal game in the organization as a 17-year-old in 2010.

They have context that we lack, and I think that deep reservoir of information, whether they share it or not, has given the organization a good sense of where Bogaerts ultimately ends up.

I don't know this, but based on what I think they know, I don't believe they see him long-term as a shortstop. Sure, excepting perhaps the pitchers he is playing behind, we all want him to end up there, because a shortstop of his talent and skill (providing it goes fulfilled) is such a valuable player. And they're giving him every chance to prove he can stay there, for his own current benefit, even though I think they have a clear idea of how this ultimately plays out.

The Red Sox organization does not believe the back-and-forth moves have led to the downward spiral at the plate. Bogaerts simply hasn’t made adjustments.

Amen to this. Since moving back to shortstop on Aug. 1, Bogaerts is 3 for 39. While the thriving Boston chapter of the Drew Family Haters Club chooses to ignore causation and correlation and claim that Stephen Drew's arrival is what turned Bogaerts's into an easy out, that's just not the case.

Bogaerts went on a 23-for-59 tear after the Drew signing was announced. When Drew actually did arrive in Boston, bumping Bogaerts to third (where, if I recall, he thrived last postseason), the kid went into a tailspin, no doubt. The position change frustrated him to some degree -- he wants to be a shortstop in the same way Derek Jeter has refused to yield the prestige position. But it wasn't because seeing Drew in person turned his bat to stone, the act of some kind of baseball Medusa.

The only way Drew could have had a negative effect on Bogaerts is if he threw him a slider -- and if he did, he'd probably get him to swing and miss.

That is Bogaerts's ongoing problem. Pitchers have adjusted to him. He has not adjusted back, and he's so messed up, worrying about getting a pitch he can't hit, that he's passing up the ones he can.

Moving to third after he got a vote of confidence at shortstop bothered him, sure. But not as much as sliders did.

“Put it this way, at one time he would have been a featured piece in a deal, now he’d be a throw-in,” a National League adviser said about Bradley’s value.

This comment is an interesting lesson on how prospects' value and perception can fluctuate in a short time, something to keep in mind as we debate whether Blake Swihart, Henry Owens, and Mookie Betts are keepers or trade chips. (Will Middlebrooks is Exhibit A here.)

But just so you know, we're onto you, National League adviser guy. You're trying to get a bargain.

Never have two young players been so hyped by their own team and by the media (guilty as charged). But nobody saw this coming.

I thought Bogaerts would be an All-Star this season and Bradley would play brilliant defense, get on-base at a decent clip, and hit about .260. I definitely did not see this coming.

I think the suggestion that the Red Sox overhyped these guys is inaccurate; hell, we're the ones who built the Baseball Preview section around them.

And I do think there were significantly different levels of expectation from those who pay close attention to prospects.

Baseball America had Bogaerts as its No. 2 prospect, up six spots. Bradley was No. 50, down 17 spots from last year.

Bogaerts was the untouchable phenom, the franchise cornerstone. Bradley shaped up to be a dependable all-around player on a winning team.

I want to believe in the latter evaluation. The one I still do believe in, 117 games into this disappointing season, is the former.

But as a certain coach once said, I reserve the right to change my mind. Even the best prospects make you question them sometimes.

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