For those of us left behind in the gray New England of February to plod through the dirt-snow toward spring, Fort Myers, Florida is a destination to envy.
The skies are sunny, literally and figuratively. The Red Sox begin their preparations for the 2014 season as the defending World Champions, and the concerns among the incurable sports-radio caterwaulers so far have focused on the contract status beyond this year for their two biggest World Series stars, David Ortiz and Jon Lester. In other words, even those who get paid to gripe and agitate for four hours a day are struggling to find anything new to wail about.
Sure, there are semi-intriguing position battles and awaited status updates. Can Jackie Bradley Jr. thrive playing every day? Which of the young pitchers will step forward? Will Stephen Drew make up his mind? But given what the Red Sox accomplished last fall and the young talent on the verge of pushing the holdovers for jobs, the franchise is in a pretty wonderful spot right now.
Reports sent north tell us its a tranquil, optimistic, yet determined vibe around this team, as it should be. Hope does spring eternal. Hell, even Grady Sizemore, a fascinating lottery ticket in which any payoff would be a bonus, is healthy and inspiring Red Sox fans to imagine the possibilities.
No one in their right mind dared to consider the possibility of the season ending with a World Series title at this time last spring. But it soon became obvious something special was going on, and in October the dream did prove possible for the 2013 Red Sox. Given their assets, ability, and collective attitude, it’s impossible not to dream now about a sequel — in part because of a player whose future is brighter than that Fort Myers horizon.
I believe Xander Bogaerts is going to be a star — immediately and with nary a bump on smooth road to superstardom. The Red Sox’ rookie shortstop and unflappable stalwart of October has all of the ability — he’s generally regarded as the second-best prospect in baseball, behind Twins outfielder Byron Buxton. Unlike Buxton, a 20-year-old who hasn’t yet had a plate appearance above high Single A, Bogaerts already has had extraordinarily encouraging moments of success in the major leagues.
Having turned 21 on the first day of October, Bogaerts gained much acclaim for his beyond-his-years patience at the plate in tense moments during the ALCS and World Series. But his contributions extended beyond keeping his bat on his shoulder when the temptation must have been to let it fly. He hit a crucial double off eventual Cy Young winner Max Scherzer in the Game 6 clincher in the ALCS, tripled in Game 3 of the World Series, and finished the postseason with an .894 OPS in 34 plate appearances — 16 fewer than he had in the regular season. One can’t say for sure, but it’s possible the Red Sox wouldn’t be receiving rings at the Fenway opener without his contributions.
One more reason to believe that Bogaerts isn’t hyped, but just this good: Talk to his teammates about him, and they’ll mention his extraordinary talent, cite names of future superstars with whom they once played. But invariably the conversation drifts to his poise, confidence and professionalism. Bogaerts is casually certain he belongs, but if you hear Dustin Pedroia praise him or saw him attached to John McDonald’s hip during infield practice last October, you know he’s putting in the time to make sure all of that breathtaking talent is fulfilled.
That Pedro comparison in Shaughnessy’s column today? It seems like a little much. And then you really think about it, and rather than sounding like hyperbole, it begins to sound like foreshadowing.
I know, the natural instinct when we discuss young players — even those as obviously talented as Bogaerts — is to play it cautiously, to suggest they’ll need time to get … I don’t know, acclimated or something. In some cases — Pedroia’s, for one — that’s true. Even Mike Trout, who is on his way to becoming our Mickey Mantle minus the hagiography and vices, struggled upon his first couple of twirls with the Angels. Bogaerts surely will have to adjust and re-adjust along the way as pitchers prod at him to find a flaw that can be exposed. But we’ve already had those indications …
… that he’s going to be able to handle anything even the best pitchers throw at him. He’s an elite talent, truly he is, and sometimes the caution flags just aren’t worth waving for players of his caliber. Sometimes future superstars turn that future into the present much sooner than we expect.
Consider the first full seasons of a couple of shortstop superstars of last 20 years or so, and then ask yourself: Is Bogaerts capable of this right away? In a couple of cases, I’d say he is. Let’s start with …
I don’t know about you, but I felt like hitting the early-bird special and going to bed at 6:30 p.m. when Bogaerts said a few days ago that he’s wearing No. 2 in honor of Hanley Ramirez, his childhood hero. Hell, it seems like Hanley was a Bogaerts-style super-prospect just a couple of springs ago. But he’s 30 years old now, somehow, and its been 11 years since he got his two at-bats with the 2005 Red Sox before being dealt to the Marlins in the Josh Beckett/Mike Lowell swap. It is a great comparison, with Ramirez being a little more electric athletically, while Bogaerts is more mature now than Hanley probably is at 30. Take the steals out of Ramirez’s rookie year, and I don’t think it’s out of the question Bogaerts puts up similar numbers.
What’s this I hear about him retiring? Seems to be some buzz about that, no? Jeter was a star from the get-go, but he didn’t put up truly big numbers until a couple of years later. I’d suggest Bogaerts has a lot in common with Jeter (and will probably hit for more power), but that might tempt Buster Olney to write another strawman-laden missive on why Jeter is not overrated.
I doubt Bogaerts will hit with that kind of power as a rookie — 20 homers seems like a reasonably optimistic number. There’s a perception that Nomar’s power surge as a rookie was unexpected, but maybe it shouldn’t have been. He did hit 20 homers in 284 plate appearances between Pawtucket and the Red Sox as a 22-year-old in 1996.
Tulowitzki greatly benefited from Coors Field as a rookie — in 77 road games, he put up .256/.327/.393 slash line with nine homers and 39 RBIs. Double those road numbers and you might have a decent suggestion for Bogaerts’s season, though I expect he’ll have a higher OPS than rookie Tulo’s .719 on the road.
C’mon. You knew I would.