Beyond his talent on the field, Boston Red Sox shortstop prospect Xander Bogaerts rates a Torii Hunter-like grade on the 20-80 player congeniality scale. He displayed his people skills during the All-Star Futures Game, when he stood near the third-base dugout at Citi Field in New York and gave one media interview after another on a day so hot it could melt a Cliff Lee death stare.
Bogaerts, 20, answered questions about his position preference (open-minded), his linguistic skills (he speaks fluent English, Spanish, Dutch and Papiamento) and his feelings about spending last August and this spring with Boston's Double-A affiliate in Portland, Maine.
"Cold," Bogaerts said, laughing. "Last year was such beautiful weather, and I came into Portland this year and it was a hard time -- especially being from Aruba. It was a good learning experience. It's definitely challenging. Hopefully next year, wherever I am, I'm accustomed to the cold."
Apparently Bogaerts' swing is weather-resistant. He hit .311 with a .909 OPS for the Seadogs to earn a promotion to Triple-A Pawtucket, where he has seven home runs in his first 29 games. For Red Sox fans and die-hard prospect watchers wondering when he might break through and earn a promotion to the big club in Boston, here's a hint: He's getting warmer.
Finding his place
In Keith Law's midseason ranking of MLB's top prospects, Bogaerts comes in at No. 3, and it has become apparent that he doesn't have much left to prove until Pawtucket manager Gary DiSarcina calls him into the office for that once-in-a-lifetime conversation. Boston general manager Ben Cherington recently acknowledged that Bogaerts could be at Fenway Park before the end of the season, and assistant GM Mike Hazen reiterated those sentiments in an interview with ESPN.com.
"Like Ben said, you can't be in Triple-A and not be knocking on the door," Hazen said. "We think this guy can play major league shortstop. That's No. 1. But if his bat and ability put him on the major league team, we have to figure out a place to play him. And we will."
As Bogaerts climbs the organizational ladder, he's suffering from a mild case of Jurickson Profar "Where-do-we-put-him?" syndrome. Jose Iglesias, a shortstop by trade who was lauded primarily for his glove on his way through the system, is hitting .367 in 52 games and is poised to slide from third base over to shortstop when Stephen Drew leaves town. Dustin Pedroia has second base covered for the foreseeable future, and the Red Sox still have to figure out where they're going with third baseman Will Middlebrooks -- who earned a demotion to Pawtucket with a rough two months and is trying to work his way back up I-95 toward Boston.
In addition, the Red Sox have two more promising infielders progressing through the system in third baseman Garin Cecchini, another Futures Game participant, and shortstop Deven Marrero, a former Arizona State Sun Devil and 2012 first-round pick. It's a nice problem to have.
Bogaerts is the shining light of the Boston farm system because of his athletic ability and live bat. He signed out of his native Aruba for a $410,000 bonus at age 17 and made an instant impression when former international scouting director Craig Shipley brought him to Fort Myers, Fla., and he began cranking balls into the nether regions of City of Palms Park.
Over the past year, Bogaerts' plate discipline and defensive consistency have been major areas of improvement. Last year Bogaerts struck out 106 times and drew 44 walks in 532 minor league plate appearances. This year he has 72 strikeouts and 50 walks in 378 plate appearances. He's able to make adjustments from game to game, at-bat to at-bat and pitch to pitch, impressive feats for a 20-year-old who has moved through the system so aggressively.
"He doesn't try to take monster hacks at every pitch in all counts," said pitcher Anthony Ranaudo, Bogaerts' former teammate in Portland. "He just recognizes pitches and he hits them."
Phillies prospect Jesse Biddle, who faced Bogaerts several times with Reading in the Eastern League, focused on keeping the ball down in the zone against Bogaerts and fared better than most. Anyone who falls behind Bogaerts and pumps fastballs up in the zone is destined for trouble.
"The majority of time that I got him out, I threw him off-speed stuff," Biddle said. "He doesn't really miss fastballs. It's fun to watch when I'm not pitching. When I'm pitching, I just try to get ahead of him and then spin him to death. We talked about it and he said, 'You kind of own me.' Not a lot of guys do."
The glove has been the bigger revelation this season. At 6-foot-3, 175 pounds, Bogaerts has a big frame for a shortstop, and the conventional wisdom is that he might eventually outgrow the position. But as a scout at the Futures Game observed, "That whole thing went out with Cal Ripken."
When the people running Boston's farm system watch Bogaerts, they see a player who is more reliant on skill and accrued knowledge and less dependent on pure athletic ability every year. Bogaerts has benefited greatly from working with DiSarcina, who played parts of 12 seasons in the majors as a shortstop with the Angels.
"For any young player who's a shortstop in A-ball, it's going to be more athleticism over technique," Hazen said. "When they get to the upper levels, they learn about the technique. The pre-pitch routine. The shifting and shading based on how the pitcher is attacking the hitter. Being able to more comfortably go to the backhand consistently, and just making the routine plays.
"I point to how Stephen Drew plays shortstop. How many times can you make that throw across the diamond and put it head-high to the first baseman? Those are the little technical skills that Xander is working on now. He's starting to pick up those nuances of the position as he moves up the ladder."
The Red Sox think Bogaerts has the aptitude to move to third base or the outfield eventually if that's the only route available. In the World Baseball Classic, he played third base for the Netherlands because Atlanta Braves glove wizard and Curacao native Andrelton Simmons had a lock on shortstop. Simmons, Profar, Bogaerts, Arizona shortstop Didi Gregorius and Baltimore prospect Jonathan Schoop herald a new wave of infield talent who hail from what Bogaerts calls the "little blessed islands" in the Caribbean (Aruba and Curacao). If Bogaerts becomes a star at shortstop, fine. If he has to move elsewhere to find his niche, he will not regard it as a personal affront.
"I really think I'm good at shortstop right now, so that's what I'm focusing on," he said. "But I don't have a problem with [moving]. I can pitch. I'll even catch."
And Bogaerts can most definitely hit, regardless of the weather, the venue or the caliber of pitching he encounters. His ascent to the big stage is now a question of when -- not if.
"The whole game just looks easy when he plays it," Biddle said. "Just watch him and see how he goes about his business. He's definitely one of those guys you know is going a long way in this game."