Pressure off, Anderson looks to rebound

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Boston Red Sox first baseman Kevin Youkilis said recently he understands that there are younger players in camp who may be bigger and stronger and also want to take his job.

He's right.

That's just part of the natural progression of life in sports. Youkilis will turn 31 on March 15, and when he glances around at all the young prospects in Red Sox camp, it doesn't take him long to notice the talented players around him.

Still, he's not about to give up his job any time soon.

When that time comes, the Red Sox believe they could have the right person to replace the All-Star first baseman, as long as Lars Anderson continues to develop in the minor leagues (and the team doesn't make a deal for Adrian Gonzalez). The 22-year-old Anderson stands 6-foot-4 and tips the scale at 215 pounds. He's a big left-handed hitter whom the Red Sox project to be their first baseman of the future.

Getting there will be the hard part.

Boston selected Anderson in the 18th round (553rd overall) in the 2006 draft, and he began his pro career at Class A Greenville in 2007. He hit .288 with 10 homers and 69 RBIs in 124 games for the Drive that season before being promoted to high-A Lancaster. Anderson played the final 10 games of the season and hit one homer with nine RBIs.

In 2008, he played 77 games in Lancaster and posted a .317 average with 13 homers, 19 doubles and 50 RBIs before he was promoted to Double-A Portland. Anderson's progression continued to impress the Red Sox's baseball operations staff, as he recorded a .316 average with five homers and 30 RBIs in 41 games for the Sea Dogs.

If the hype surrounding him was big at that time, it grew by leaps and bounds during the offseason before 2009.

Anderson attended the rookie development program in Boston that January, and was the talk of the town as he got a firsthand look at what it would be like to play for the Red Sox. There was even more anticipation once Anderson participated in his first big league camp last spring. He played a total of only four games (five at-bats) for the Red Sox during Grapefruit League games, and manager Terry Francona was able to get a good look at him.

When camp broke, Anderson was assigned to Portland, where the cold climate and frigid nights made the early part of the season tough for the California native.

For the first time in his career, he dealt with adversity and struggled on the field. He played the entire season with the Sea Dogs and posted a .233 average with nine homers and 51 RBIs in 119 games.

"He made some very big strides," said his Double-A manager, Arnie Beyeler. "He had some adversity and handled it very well. It's better he has that down with us instead of when he gets to the big leagues. That's part of player development. He's matured from it, and we have to remember he's still a young kid. For a person to be 20 years old and to have the kind of year he had in Double-A, being his first full season there, we'll take it and move from it."

Part of that learning process was being the No. 1 prospect in the Red Sox's organization, according to Baseball America. All the attention was on him. He played first and hit in the middle of the Sea Dogs' lineup all season long.

"I'm sure people would have liked to have seen better numbers, but a lot of times we get a little too caught up in the numbers," Beyeler said. "It was a good development year for him. He learned a lot of things."

But only a few weeks into the regular season this past April, Anderson suffered an oblique injury that nagged him for the remainder of the season.

"I had one of the most annoying injuries of my career," he said. "I hurt my oblique for the first few months, and it was so hard to kick. It was really, really annoying. I didn't feel very injury-free, but I played a lot. Everybody plays with injuries; it's nothing new."

Anderson was able to grind through it, but he quickly learned a lot about himself, his abilities and the pro game.

"Every player is going to struggle at some point during their career," said Red Sox director of player development Mike Hazen. "Whether that's in the big leagues or the minor leagues, it's about processing that the right way and going out and continuing to get better every day. Everything we've seen from him this year, he seems to process it really well. We'll see what happens when the games start, but he's done a really good job to put himself in great shape. Physically he's had a good camp so far, and it's exciting to go out and watch him play again. All the talent is there; it was there all year last year. He just had some ups and downs. Hopefully this year he'll be able to string it along a little bit better."

Even Francona has seen a big difference in Anderson this spring.

"I do think he is way better situated to have success," Francona said. "He had to grind through last year, and now he's showing up, and when he's swinging, he's grunting. I think you're going to see a more improved, productive player. Even defensively, I just believe it's his time to start being a player."

The title of No. 1 Red Sox prospect no longer belongs to Anderson. Outfielder Ryan Westmoreland owns that distinction this season. In fact, Anderson is quite happy the focus is off, and he's hoping to fly under the radar this season.

"It's not something that I've consciously pondered, but I think subconsciously I have," he said. "Well, I guess if it's subconscious, then I don't feel subconscious anymore. I do feel it. Maybe subconscious is not the right word. Maybe I feel that underlying sense of relaxed feeling."

What are you trying to say, Spicoli?

"I don't know what I'm saying," Anderson said. "I really can't speak English before 9 o'clock. Basically, there's an underlying sense of calm that I didn't have last year."

During his struggles, Anderson attempted to convince himself that they were part of his development and tried not to get caught up in the ups and downs.

"You try to think of it that way, but I got caught up in emotions because I was attached to success or failure, so that was tough," he said. "You try to remind yourself that this is a process, a marathon as opposed to a sprint. When you're scuffling, or doing really well, it's hard to keep that perspective."

It's too early in camp to know where Anderson will start the season. If he doesn't start the year at Triple-A Pawtucket, it won't be long before he reaches that level in 2010.

"Whatever level I'm at, I just want to be in the place that's best for me," he said. "I trust these guys, and I trust myself to make the best of the opportunity no matter where it is."

If Anderson can produce on a consistent basis, maybe it won't be long before Youkilis has to look over his shoulder. It remains to be seen whether Anderson will reach that point, but the Red Sox organization is confident he will.

"He's a very positive kid, and he works very hard. I think he's put last season behind him. He's working really hard and playing really well this spring," Beyeler said. "The pressure is off, and he can keep developing."

Joe McDonald covers the Red Sox and Bruins for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.