Nineteen-year-old Aruban shortstop Xander Bogaerts has the highest potential of any prospect in the Red Sox minor league system. Period. That’s why it’s not surprising that he’s ranked as a top-three prospect in the organization by SoxProspects.com, Baseball America, MLB.com and minorleagueball.com, despite likely being a few years away from even getting a shot at the major leagues.
Bogaerts’ baseball career has been quite an interesting journey -- from learning the game in his grandmother’s backyard in Aruba, to signing a professional contract with the Red Sox in August 2009 on the same day that his twin brother, Jair, signed with the club, to vaulting to top-prospect status in Greenville, S.C., in 2011.
“I started playing baseball at the age of 4 in the backyard of my grandmother’s house,” Bogaerts said. “My uncle taught us the basics. In Aruba, there isn’t really high quality baseball like there is in the Dominican or in Venezuela, but we have talent. I played in the little leagues as a kid and realized that I was having more fun when I was playing the game than anything else.”
A projectable, naturally-gifted athlete with a lean-but-powerful frame and an unbridled passion for the game, Bogaerts began receiving significant interest from major league scouts at the age of 16.
“I got attention from a lot of other teams,” Bogaerts said, “but Boston wanted both my brother and I, so that's what made the decision easy for us. It’s been a great experience playing my whole life with Jair, and I was intrigued by the idea of playing professional ball with him.”
Former Red Sox scout Mike Lord and former director of international scouting Craig Shipley signed Bogaerts to a professional contract on Aug. 23, 2009, during the second month of the 2009-2010 international signing period. The contract came with a generous $410,000 signing bonus. On the same day, Boston signed Jair, a large-framed catcher, to a $180,000 bonus.
Bogaerts impressed early onlookers, first during a short stint at minor league spring training in late March 2010. He showed a smooth, fluid swing with strong hands, good separation and the ability to create lift on the ball to all fields. After spending only two weeks stateside, he returned to Aruba to finish high school, slightly delaying his professional debut. In June 2010, following graduation, Xander and Jair both were assigned to the Dominican Summer League.
In the DSL, Bogaerts posted an impressive .314/.396/.423 line, with 15 extra-base hits in 239 at-bats. In the process, he was named a DSL All-Star and took home the award for 2010 Red Sox Latin Program Player of the Year. Meanwhile, Jair struggled to impress on offense, hitting just .170 in 46 games, and while he showed some signs of promise on defense, his movements were a bit rigid for him to be considered a future major league backstop.
Bogaerts really hit the radar for those who scouted him during the 2010 Florida Fall Instructional League. According to SoxProspects.com director of scouting Chris Mellen, Bogaerts stuck out by demonstrating a high baseball IQ, impressive maturity and solid potential to become a middle-of-the-order, run-producing bat at the major league level. However, there were certainly developmental needs in the areas of pitch recognition, strike zone judgment and dealing with off-speed pitches. Additionally, Bogaerts’ defense still was raw, as would be expected for a player of his age and experience.
He continued to impress scouts during minor league spring training in 2011, flashing tremendous raw power and home run potential. When Bogaerts got the barrel of the bat on the ball, he really showed an elite ability to drive the ball with authority, particularly for an 18-year-old shortstop. He spent the early part of the 2011 season in extended spring training in Fort Myers, but earned a promotion to Low-A Greenville on June 9, 2011. In the process, he became the first player in the Boston system to go directly from the DSL to Greenville under the current ownership regime (skipping over both the rookie-level Gulf Coast League and short-season Lowell).
“Playing in Greenville, I saw a lot more off-speed pitches, a lot of breaking stuff and more velocity,” Bogaerts said. “In the DSL, I faced mostly pitchers who didn't have a lot of control. In Greenville, the pitchers had better control and better stuff.”
Meanwhile, Jair stayed back in the DSL in 2011 and was converted to first base. He started to come around offensively, hitting .288/.387/.404 in 156 at-bats, but remained three levels behind his brother.
Despite the aggressive placement, Bogaerts thrived with the Drive, hitting .260/.325/.509 with 16 home runs in 265 at-bats. For sabermetricians, the .249 isolated power number really jumped off the page for such an age-advanced player. For scouts, the perfect sound of the ball coming off of Bogaerts’ bat and the distance of his home run shots were common notes in most scouting reports, typically leading to highly promising projections.
“Xander really impressed in 2011 by making adjustments at the plate and in the field during his first season in the States,” Red Sox director of player development Ben Crockett said. “He shows athleticism in everything he does and can really impact the baseball to all fields, something uncommon for a player of his age and development time. He continues to improve his overall approach at the plate while refining his defensive fundamentals at shortstop, both things that repetition will help ingrain.”
Other sources concur that Bogaerts made strides in his plate approach, but some scouts feel he will be pushed to improve his pitch recognition as he climbs the organizational ladder. As of now, he’s still overaggressive at the plate --– most of his strikeouts come as a result of chasing breaking balls and elevated fastballs. And given how much development he has in front of him, it's just as likely that he never makes it past Double-A as that he becomes a major league All-Star.
Scouts also rave about Bogaerts’ maturity and effort level. One source indicates that he regularly participated in a strict regimen of additional individual workouts on top of mandatory team workouts, including consistently staying late to run extra wind sprints in 100-degree weather during the dog days of August.
In terms of defense, he has demonstrated a slightly above-average arm and good hands, but his footwork is rough and he needs to slow down his game. Many scouts have projected that he could end up moving to left field or third base, especially if he fills out his frame a lot more. But both Bogaerts and Crockett see him sticking at shortstop for the foreseeable future.
“In terms of long-term projection, we have been impressed by the strides he's made at shortstop in a short period of time,” Crockett said. “We have no plans to move him.”
“I grew up playing shortstop and I’d like to continue playing shortstop in professional ball,” Bogaerts said. “But I would play anywhere as long as I'm in the lineup. Shortstop is a difficult position, but I think I get where I need to be with more training.”
Bogaerts has centered his training this offseason on his defense and continued conditioning, but he also got some great experience with the Netherlands national team, which took home the gold medal in the 2011 Baseball World Cup (Aruba is an autonomous territory of the Netherlands).
“I’ve been working out a lot in the gym this offseason, doing a lot of running and working to improve my defense,” Bogaerts said. “I've been in Aruba for most of the offseason because I played with the Dutch World Cup team -- the champion Dutch World Cup team.”
In 2012, Bogaerts hopes to incorporate more athleticism into his game while keeping his mind in the right place.
“I want to use my speed more in the coming season, in addition to improving my defense,” Bogaerts said. “Also, I have to always remember that the mental part of the game is very important. Playing this game, you're going to fail a lot. And you have to be able to deal with it.”
When spring training rolls around and the Sox take the field at JetBlue Park in the coming weeks, it will be intriguing to see how Bogaerts is maturing physically in order to project whether he’s indeed going to be able to stick at shortstop or whether he’ll outgrow the position. At the outset of the 2012 season, Bogaerts will be on the cusp for a promotion to High-A Salem, but it’s just as likely that he starts the season back with Greenville.
Either way, expect for the 19-year-old to spend all or most of the season in A-ball, with an eye toward a major league spring training invitation and an assignment to Double-A in 2013.