HOUSTON -- Xander Bogaerts signed with the Boston Red Sox in 2009, three years before Carlos Correa was taken by the Houston Astros with the No. 1 pick in the 2012 draft. They never played against each other in the minors, their paths barely crossing until Correa's first trip to Fenway Park last July, one month after his major league debut.
But for a few hours on July 14, 2013, they were actually teammates.
"Oh, man," Bogaerts said, recalling the 2013 Futures Game at Citi Field in New York, "I remember [Correa] and [Twins rookie Miguel] Sano putting on a show in BP. If you've got that kind of power, I mean, why not show it, right? Correa, man, he's so big and powerful, but he's athletic, too. He moves really well for a big guy. That's what I remember thinking about when I saw him."
Three years later, Bogaerts and Correa are members of an absurdly deep class of gifted young shortstops that also includes the Indians' Francisco Lindor, the Dodgers' Corey Seager and the Cubs' Addison Russell. Add in Rockies rookie phenom Trevor Story, and it's all very mid-1990s, the previous golden age for the position, when Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Nomar Garciaparra, Miguel Tejada and Edgar Renteria burst onto the scene together.
At 23, and with two full seasons already under his belt, Bogaerts is the old man of the group. He broke through way back in the 2013 postseason, helping the Red Sox win the World Series, but he really emerged last year, when he batted .320, finished second in the American League with 196 hits and took hold of the No. 3 spot in the batting order in front of David Ortiz.
Correa, though, might already be the best of the lot. After getting called up last season, he batted .279 with 22 home runs and an .857 OPS in 99 games, carried the Astros to their first playoff appearance since 2005 and edged Lindor in the Rookie of the Year voting. At 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds, he's a manchild, maybe the closest thing to A-Rod since, well, A-Rod. And he won't turn 22 until September.
But the most impressive quality shared by Bogaerts and Correa is their desire to be great. They play with passion and aspire to be leaders -- and winners.
"What impresses me most is they're having fun," said Tampa Bay Rays third-base coach Charlie Montoyo, a coach for the loaded Futures Game team that featured Bogaerts, Correa and, for good measure, Lindor, too. "You don't see the pressure in their faces. It's amazing how these kids get to the big leagues and they're doing as good or better than they did in Triple-A. It's been impressive to watch. I always say I had a front-row seat, right there coaching third, watching these kids that day."
And as Bogaerts, health permitting (he missed Saturday's game after being hit by a pitch on the right wrist one night earlier), and Correa clash again on ESPN Sunday Night Baseball in the finale of a three-game series between the Red Sox and Astros, it's worth revisiting their respective rises.
Bogaerts: Don't sell him short
Growing up in Aruba during the dynastic Yankees' run of four World Series titles in five years, it only seemed natural that Bogaerts idolized Jeter, the most recognizable player in the world. Bogaerts wanted to play Jeter's position, wear his No. 2 and even study his opposite-field approach to hitting.
So, Bogaerts was broken-hearted midway through his rookie season when the Sox moved him to third base.
"He was upset because he firmly believed he would become a major league shortstop, and I think that [reaction] meant a lot," Red Sox infield coach Brian Butterfield said. "Regardless of how he did in 2014 as a shortstop, that had nothing to do with anything. He believed that eventually he would become a front-line shortstop, and because of the hard work and his belief in his ability to do it, it's paying dividends for him."
It helped, too, that Bogaerts had a supporter in Butterfield, who coincidentally coached Jeter as a young shortstop. While some Red Sox talent evaluators thought the 6-foot-1, 210-pound Bogaerts lacked the range to stay at short, Butterfield recognized his athleticism. All it would take, Butterfield insisted, was perfecting his footwork and accelerating his first step.
Bogaerts left Aruba for long stretches of the 2014-15 offseason to train at EXOS Performance, an Arizona-based facility where Garciaparra, Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury and others worked out early in their careers. Through plyometric training, he increased his strength and speed. And those physical gains, coupled with tutorials from Butterfield on improving his anticipation, turned Bogaerts into an above-average shortstop. According to Baseball Info Solutions, he cost the Red Sox eight fewer runs last season than in 2014.
"The kid never had grandiose range and all that stuff, but he's got such good instincts," said a talent evaluator from a National League team. "I'm sure a lot of scouts had him at third base two years ago. But if you watch him play, on every pitch his focus is anticipation, he's always positioned properly. He plays the position and he's always under control. You can't teach that. It's court awareness, as they say in the NBA. Bogaerts is a guy that you leave there. He's committed to it. He's got the makeup to play there, he's got the footwork and athleticism, and he's a good shortstop."
These days, much of the conversation about Bogaerts centers on his still-developing power. He hit just seven homers last season and had one through his first 70 plate appearances this year.
"Quite frankly, I'm hearing more about the home runs he doesn't hit than how good a player he is, and it drives me up a wall," the NL evaluator said. "I can never justify that. I mean, you look at shortstops and the demands of the position, the last thing I'd be worried about is who's hitting home runs and who's not."
Indeed, while the Red Sox believe Bogaerts is capable of clocking 20-25 homers, they would be perfectly content to see him hit .300 again with an all-fields approach that could be described as Jeter-esque.
Considering the inspiration for that comparison, Bogaerts would be fine with that, too.
Correa: A will to win
All along, the Astros suspected Correa was special. They found out for certain on Sept. 15, 2014.
Correa's season had ended three months earlier when he fractured his fibula. But with his Single-A Lancaster teammates playing for the California League title, he surprised them by dipping into his $4.8 million signing bonus and flying in from the Astros' training facility in Kissimmee, Florida, to give a pep talk before the deciding game.
"That meant more to me than watching him hit home runs and make great plays," one NL scout said. "He told those guys, 'We worked hard all year. I want that damn ring.' How many kids are going to do that, especially with his talent? They're usually only thinking about the big leagues. You just don't find kids like that. Learning that about him and watching the passion and the honesty that he had for his teammates, that's a Hall of Fame makeup."
Combine that with Correa's exceeding ability and it's little wonder that many talent evaluators believe he will be considered with Mike Trout and Bryce Harper in the best-in-baseball conversation over the next 10 years.
Butterfield doesn't need to be convinced. Not after seeing Correa make a diving play to rob Bogaerts of a hit in Houston last July 23, two weeks after launching a pair of homers in a series at Fenway Park. Never mind that Correa hasn't homered since April 6 after going deep three times in the season's first two games.
"One of the most difficult things for players, regardless of whether they're going to Cooperstown or not, is they've got to keep repeating their performance. That's a tough thing to do for all these kids, Correa included,” Butterfield said. “But this kid in Houston is just dynamic. I don't enjoy watching Correa just because of how good he is."
Amazingly, though, when the Astros picked LSU shortstop Alex Bregman second overall last June, there was discussion in the draft room that they could eventually move Correa to third base, prompting one AL scout to grumble, "Whoever said that should be ashamed of themselves." It seems the Astros are now focused more on having Bregman switch positions, possibly to left field.
“When I saw Correa last year, I go, 'Oh, my god,'” Montoyo said. “Think about it: Hitting third in the lineup as a 19-year-old? It's not that easy, and he's doing it like it's no big deal and making plays.”
Added an NL scout: "I know you've got your Trouts and your Harpers, but considering the position [shortstop], dang, I'd put Carlos Correa up against anyone. I think he can be that good. The sky's the limit with him."
At this rate, being regarded as the best shortstop in the AL would be high enough praise, especially with Bogaerts and Lindor doing their thing.
"Who's the youngest? Correa?" Bogaerts said. "Wow. And he's the biggest, too. If we all stay in the same league, yeah, it's going to be fun trying to make the All-Star team, stuff like that. It's going to be exciting."