The legend of Xander Bogaerts -- the best Red Sox prospect since Hanley Ramirez, the X-factor in the AL East race, the 20-year-old phenom who could do for Boston what Manny Machado did for the Orioles a year ago -- begins with a chicken pox story.
In the summer of 2009, Red Sox scout Mike Lord was at the end of a trip to Aruba, an island of pebble-strewn baseball fields and skinny young boys with dreams of the big leagues, an outpost where discovering a major league ballplayer is, in his words, "like trying to draw an inside straight." For Lord it hadn't been a particularly memorable trip -- he had seen the usual assortment of teenagers with raw talent, though no budding stars -- but before moving on to his next stop he had asked the locals the question a good scout always asks: Anyone else I need to see here?
"There's this kid, this shortstop," somebody said, before adding that there was just one problem. "This kid's been on the couch with the chicken pox."
"Can I see him?" Lord asked.
The next day, a car pulled up to one of the fields and a skinny teenager stumbled out. The disheveled boy, recalls Lord, "looked like he just woke up." Xander Bogaerts was 16 years old then, an unknown to virtually every major league team, but after watching him play for 10 minutes, Lord was thinking, How on earth has this kid slipped through the cracks? Off the couch for the first time in two weeks, Bogaerts worked out and played in a scrimmage for Lord, who says, "you could see [his] athleticism immediately." Early in the scrimmage, with a man on second and Bogaerts playing short, a ball was hit up the middle. "And [Bogaerts] lays out, spins around, realizes he doesn't have a play at first, so, from his butt, he throws the ball home and throws the guy out," says Lord. "To have that ability and presence of mind at that age -- I'm like, 'Holy Cow.' "
In his first at bat, with a stiff wind blowing in from leftfield, Bogaerts ripped a pitch high and deep to left -- the ball sailed over the fence, over a road and into a small house, shattering a window. "It was a Roy Hobbs moment," says Lord.
Lord had been taking video and he emailed a five-minute clip of Bogaerts in action to Craig Shipley, Boston's vice president of international scouting. The message was short: "WATCH THIS."
Lord's phone rang seconds later. "Where did you find this guy?" Shipley said. "I need to get on a plane."
Four years later, the boy with the chicken pox is 20 and one of the best prospects in the game. The Red Sox promoted Bogaerts to the big leagues on Monday from Triple-A Pawtucket, where he had been slicing up the International League, hitting .284/.369/.453, with nine home runs and 11 doubles in 60 games. Earlier this summer, he had been dominant at Double-A Portland, where he hit .311/.407/.502.
"A future star," says a scout of Bogaerts. "Could he be an impact player right now? He could be."
That rumble you hear is the sound of baseball's hype machine firing up again for the latest Next Big Thing: a 6-foot-3, 185-pound shortstop/third baseman who could be the next prospect to rock the game.
There is something alluring about baseball and phenoms, about the idea that an athlete could be so young, so inexperienced, and so good. They (and their hype) seem to keep coming, one after another, from Yasiel Puig to Wil Myers to Jose Fernandez to Gerrit Cole to Zack Wheeler. One season after the Year of Bryce Harper and Mike Trout, here we are again.
What's been remarkable is that so many of the Next Big Things have not only lived up to the hype, but in many cases have exceeded it. Myers was the Next Dale Murphy when he was traded to the Rays over the winter, and now he's hitting cleanup for Tampa Bay and on his way to winning the AL Rookie of the Year Award despite not making his debut until mid-June. Scouts called Puig the second coming of Bo Jackson, and the Cuban expat has been even better than expected. Fernandez began the year as the youngest pitcher in Marlins history, and already, at 21, he's one of the best pitchers in the league -- Felix Hernandez 2.0.
The kids are making it look easy and setting a ridiculously high bar for the next wave of great young prospects: Bogaerts, Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, Oscar Taveras, Archie Bradley, Francisco Lindor, Taijaun Walker.
"Harper, Trout, Manny Machado, these guys are making us forget that this game is really, really hard," says former Twins first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz, now the manager at Double-A Fort Myers, where the legend of 19-year-old Byron Buxton, the top prospect in all of baseball, continues to grow. With Buxton and Sano -- ranked No. 1 and No. 3 in Baseball America's midseason top prospects list -- Minnesota could have the top two young players in the game heading into 2014. That hasn't happened since 1999, when the Cardinals had J.D. Drew (No. 1) and Rick Ankiel (No. 2) in the same system.
"The expectations for these kids are getting ridiculous," says Mientkiewicz. "Before this wave, the last 19-, 20-year-olds to make this kind of impact were Griffey and A-Rod -- my point is that this just isn't the norm, and we shouldn't expect it to be."
He adds, "With Byron and Miguel, I would not be surprised if they fall short of the expectations. I also wouldn't be surprised if they don't. They're really, really talented, and they could be the faces of baseball in five years. But let's remember, they're also going to struggle a lot, just like any of these prospects."
Sano, 20, is still at least a year away from the majors; Buxton, who's just 19, likely won't arrive until 2015. With a September callup for Oscar Taveras now out of the question (the Cardinals' top prospect is having season-ending ankle surgery), the next stud prospect to make a splash in the Show is Bogaerts, who made his debut Tuesday night in San Francisco.
Though the shortstop from Aruba went 0-for-3 in his first big league game, he has hit at every level of pro ball. Last year, split between High-A and Double-A, he became the first teenager to hit 20 home runs for the franchise at any level since Tony Conigliaro did it for Boston almost 50 years ago. This summer Bogaerts has played sporadically at third base to get experience at the position, but how he fits into the clubs plans is still unclear. Last week the Red Sox promoted Will Middlebrooks to take over for Jose Iglesias at third. At shortstop, where Bogaerts played in his debut, the starting job belongs to Stephen Drew, who is playing well after a rocky start.
"I think [Bogaerts] is ready to help the big league club," says one scout. "He might struggle at the plate but look at Machado at the end of last year -- he wasn't great at the plate but he had some huge hits down the stretch and in the playoffs, and his cup of coffee set him up to hit the ground running to start [this] season."
Shortly after Shipley flew to meet Lord in Aruba in the summer of '09 so that he could see the kid with the chicken pox for himself, Boston signed the young shortstop for $410,000. Bogaerts was 16 when he made his first trip to Fenway Park to work out in front of Red Sox officials, including then-general manager Theo Epstein. "Everyone couldn't believe how the ball jumped off his bat," says Lord. "The guy they all talked about was Hanley. But what people said was that Xander might have more bat speed and more tools than Hanley, at his age."
Lord knows he's just feeding the hype machine when he says such things. He knows the hype is growing and that in a city like Boston, the scrutiny will be extreme. But he also believes this: "Xander's a special player. If there's a kid who can handle it all, he can."
The expectations are only going to get bigger for baseball's Next Big Thing. But if there's anything we've learned over the last year, it's this: When it comes to baseball's phenoms, sometimes you should just believe the hype.