In the Boston Red Sox's clubhouse at JetBlue Park in Fort Myers, Florida, the gravitational pull emanates from the corner locker. While most players get one locker to store their equipment, this one is super-sized, with an extra cabinet and a bench. The space, next to the door nearest the field, is reserved for Red Sox royalty to hold court. When the ballpark opened in 2012, the locker belonged to David Ortiz. He passed it on to Dustin Pedroia in 2016, who handed it over to Xander Bogaerts heading into the 2020 season.
After Bogaerts signed an 11-year, $280 million deal with the San Diego Padres this offseason, there was a clear heir apparent: third baseman Rafael Devers, the new face of the franchise, who signed a 10-year, $313.5 million extension in January.
"He's been a leader of this team for a while here now," said Red Sox manager Alex Cora. "When he talks in that clubhouse, it's important to those guys."
In recent years, Bogaerts, J.D. Martinez, Nathan Eovaldi and Christian Vazquez were depended upon as leaders and to answer the tough questions from the Boston media and their team's fans. Now, much of that falls on Devers, who until now hasn't been expected to be the guy, the one person everyone turns to in the biggest moments to provide motivation and leadership.
At the moment, that responsibility isn't at the top of Devers' mind.
"I don't really see myself too much as a leader right now," Devers said through an interpreter. "I just try to be one of the guys. We have a lot of new guys in the clubhouse now, and I just want them to have the confidence to come up and approach me with any questions they have."
The transition in clubhouse leadership comes during a tumultuous time in franchise history. Pessimism reigns among Red Sox fans. The team's offseason moves -- highlighted by Devers' extension, as well as adding Japanese outfielder Masataka Yoshida -- weren't enough to erase the sour taste of losing Bogaerts, which had resparked conversation around the much-maligned trade of Mookie Betts, now entering his fourth season with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Fans made no secret of their disappointment, booing principal owner John Henry and chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom at the Red Sox's annual Winter Weekend. If Boston gets off to a slow start this season, the calls for change on the field and in the executive suite will only intensify.
It's a noisy backdrop to a crucial time of growth for Devers, who is currently playing for the Dominican Republic at the World Baseball Classic. At 26 years old, he represents a generational shift happening in Boston, with pitchers Chris Sale and Ryan Brasier the only other players left from the 2018 World Series championship team. In 2022, the Red Sox finished in last place with a 78-84 record in baseball's most competitive division.
Devers' attitude -- which teammates count among his strengths -- will go a long way.
"He's always happy," said Red Sox infielder Christian Arroyo. "He's not one of those guys where just because he signed a big contract he's going to work harder or less hard now. He's been the same way since I've met him, and I think he's learned a lot of that from [Bogaerts]."
Since he arrived in the big leagues in 2017 as a 21-year-old, Devers stuck to Bogaerts like Pikachu to Ash Ketchum. The two had neighboring lockers in the Fenway Park clubhouse and, whether it was eating dinner or taking ground balls, Devers and Bogaerts were inseparable.
"Everything, I learned from him," Devers said. "He created the environment here. I just want to keep that alive. He was somebody we all respected and I just want to continue that legacy within the clubhouse."
Bogaerts had learned from watching Ortiz during his early days in the big leagues and always stood at his locker after games to field questions about anything that went wrong for the team. When Bogaerts walked into the clubhouse, there was always a smile on his face and warm greetings for everyone from teammates to clubhouse attendants to media.
Teammates do notice a difference in Devers.
"I don't mean this to be weird, but he's a more childish version of Xander. There's an innocence to him," said outfielder Enrique Hernandez. "He's very playful and always having a good time."
These days, Devers' levity is a relief in the clubhouse. For him, the drama of the offseason -- just like a tough loss during it -- is already in the past.
"If you're mad or angry or bothered, you got to check yourself," Devers said. "This is a game that we're playing. You're meant to have fun. This is a game and we're a family and if you don't understand that, what are you really doing?"
On the field, teammates know what they're going to get from Devers, who has long been one of the team's most important offensive forces -- he earned MVP votes in 2019, 2021 and 2022 and played a key role in Boston's run to the World Series in 2018. He also has made strides on defense after regular criticism early in his career. Devers has improved his range and mobility to his glove side, with backhanded plays and bad throws accounting for the majority of his errors earlier in his career.
To some, though, he's still a bit of an enigma. While he did not speak much English as a rookie in 2017, he's now regularly seen joking with teammates in the language. But in 2020, when Devers entered camp and told teammates he had his second kid during the offseason, many were surprised to learn he was a father in the first place. He rarely posts on social media -- his Twitter bio still lists him as a "Boston Red Sox Minor League 3B" and he last tweeted in 2015.
When asked if he made any major purchases after signing his big extension, Devers laughed.
"I'm going to keep that private," he said.
Now, Devers will be tasked with leading the new-look Red Sox, a private person in one of the biggest positions of public scrutiny in baseball. And while the departure of Bogaerts certainly leaves a gap in the clubhouse leadership, Devers remembers watching how the former Boston shortstop affected others in the clubhouse, namely himself.
"I want to be that guy for others," Devers said.