Red Sox

Pondering Questions About Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley Jr. One Year After the Hype

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Continuing our apparently never ending series titled “Shoveling Some B.S. About Baseball Beats The Ever-Living Hell Out of Shoveling the Driveway Yet Again,” I present to you, my fellow frigid New Englander, two questions about the 2015 Red Sox that were worded much differently at this point last year. …

Is it too soon to give up on Jackie Bradley Jr.? I mean, I do understand if anyone would. He turns 25 in April, and in 164 career games and 530 plate appearances — essentially a full season, and certainly a fair trial — he put up a .196/.268/.280 slash line.

For context, Zack Greinke’s career slash line is .219/.270/.335 — and he’s a pitcher who spent the brunt of his career in the American League.

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I compared Bradley last season to Gary Pettis, a dazzling center fielder in the ’80s whose bat was merely a prop. But that probably wasn’t fair to Pettis, who could steal a base and never had a season in his 11-year career with an OPS as low as Bradley’s .531 last year.

Bradley got more than a fair shake a season ago — in retrospect, John Farrell and Ben Cherington should have been more proactive in making a change rather than giving him over 400 plate appearances to prove that he could not hit a good fastball or much of anything with a wrinkle in it.

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The glove, which should have been golden, bought him more time than he probably deserved last year. But here’s the catch: Despite all evidence so far that he can’t hit major league pitching, I wouldn’t abandon him just yet.

First, there’s that glove. He played the best center field I have ever seen by a Red Sox player, and I was raised on Fred Lynn’s highlight-reel youth. But it also is worth remembering he does have a track record of hitting.

No, not at the MLB level. That’s the truth. But his OPS in Triple A in 2013 (.842) was higher than his OPS in Double A in 2012 (.809). And in a way, his struggles upon returning to Triple A last year — a level he had mastered — show just how messed up he was at the plate.

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Because of the Red Sox outfield depth and the organization’s justifiable determination to make him prove himself, it sure looks like he’ll begin this season at Triple A.

It’s where he belongs right now, honestly. But if he hits more like the ’13 version of himself than the ’14 version, he’ll be worthy of another chance, even if as last one. At worst, that glove should allow him to settle into a role as a slick-fielding bench player even if the bat is only occasionally competent.

Will Xander Bogaerts build on his strong September?: Actually, maybe the question should be phrased like this: Was Xander Bogaerts’s September actually strong?

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There is plenty of evidence suggesting the affirmative. He hit four home runs, his high for a single month in an age-21 season in which he hit a respectable 12 total. He batted .313 with an .806 OPS and 16 RBIs. A fine month by almost any measure.

After a painfully challenging summer in which he posted a .143/.188/.207 slash-line in 245 plate appearances from June 8-August 30, it was reassuring when he finally resembled the poised-beyond-his-years star of the previous October.

(We should note he started the ’14 season rather well, peaking with an .859 OPS on June 3. It’s easy to forget now, but the spring was as promising as the summer was long for Bogaerts.)

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But there is one sign within those September numbers that suggests there may be more adjusting to be done. His on-base percentage was .317 — just .004 higher than his batting average. He had just two walks in 102 plate appearances.

For a player who appeared to possess pitch recognition skills beyond his years in October 2013 (he had six walks in 34 postseason PAs while flashing an uncanny knack for laying off pitches just off the plate) and who walked 25 times over the first two months last season, it fell somewhere between jarring and alarming to watch his strike zone judgment go on the fritz last summer.

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Sliders away suddenly mystified him to the point that one wondered whether Will Middlebrooks’s career-altering weakness had been contagious. At his worst moments, Bogaerts looked like he was guessing, as if his mind had determined whether or not he would swing before the pitch even made its direction and intentions clear.

I tend to believe September was true progress, and it was encouraging — even necessary — that he ended the season on a strong note.

I’m not sure Bogaerts is a shortstop long-term, but the belief that he will be a cornerstone player and an elite offense player for years to come remains untarnished. He’s 22, for heaven’s sake, and yet he worked his butt off through the frustrating times, hit a dozen homers, and finished strong. Those are all encouraging harbingers that stardom will be fulfilled.

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I’m just saying we should not presume that his sophomore season will pass without turbulence. Again: He’s 22. If he runs into further if briefer issues with pitch recognition this time around, it shouldn’t come as total surprise.

Nor should it surprise when he cures his this weakness once and for all and becomes everything he seemed to be — and was — during that unforgettable October.

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