As Red Sox struggle, top prospect Xander Bogaerts hits rough patch
The Red Sox won a World Series with Xander Bogaerts playing third base alongside shortstop Stephen Drew, but since reuniting the pair in early June, the Sox have sagged as both players have failed to produce. But even with Bogaerts amid a ghastly 2-for-46 slump, manager John Farrell says the team is sticking with the 21-year-old rookie.
After batting a combined .297/.388/.477 with 15 homers at Double-A and Triple-A stops, Bogaerts drew raves upon reaching the majors in late August last year. With incumbent third baseman Will Middlebrooks scuffling, the 20-year-old natural shortstop underwent a crash course at the hot corner at Triple-A Pawtucket, and he proved to be a quick study. He split time with Middlebrooks down the stretch and gained an increasing share of the at-bats in the postseason, starting the last two games of the ALCS and all six games of the World Series. Under the high-pressure circumstances, he held his own in the field and demonstrated a mature approach at the plate, batting a combined .268/.357/.408 in 84 plate appearances across the regular season and postseason.
The Red Sox eyed a return to shortstop for Bogaerts, who was anointed the consensus number two prospect in all of baseball coming into the 2014 season, behind only the Twins' Byron Buxton. To that end, Boston didn't appear particularly broken up when Drew rejected their $14.1 million qualifying offer in favor of free agency. They opened the season with Bogaerts — whom some (this scribe included) anointed a possible Rookie of the Year winner — and Middlebrooks as the left side of their infield, but that plan hit a minor snag when Middlebrooks went down with a calf strain in the season's first week, costing him three weeks. Nonetheless, the Sox kept Bogaerts at shortstop, and he flourished, batting .304/.397/.438 through the end of May.
When a nondisplaced fracture of his right index finger sent Middlebrooks — who was batting an anemic .197/.305/.324 through 82 PA — to the disabled list on May 17, Boston general manager Ben Cherington bit the bullet, re-signing the still-unemployed Drew to a one-year deal worth around $10 million, the prorated equivalent of the offer he had previously rejected. The Sox gave the 31-year old veteran just seven games and 23 plate appearances at two minor league stops before calling him up, a stint that may have been compressed by the team's rollercoaster fortunes; they lost 10 games in a row from May 15-25 to fall to 20-29, scoring just 23 runs in the process, then won seven straight to claw their way back to within two games of .500.
Drew made his 2014 debut on June 2, at which point Bogaerts shifted back to third base, but seemingly nothing has gone right since. Drew has hit .136/.174/.182 through 69 PA; at one point he went 0-for-29 without even a walk. Though Bogaerts went 4-for-8 with homers in each of his first two games back at third base, he's hit just .131/.179/.242 with a 28/4 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 106 PA since Drew's return — 6-for-76 since June 8 — adding just one homer to that ledger beyond that first pair. The Sox have gone 11-18 for the league's second-worst record since Drew resurfaced, scoring just 3.10 runs per game.
Overall, Bogaerts is batting .242/.322/.366 for a 92 OPS+, a showing that's still better than those of three other Boston regulars (A.J. Pierzynski, Daniel Nava and Jackie Bradley Jr.) and on par with a fourth (Jonny Gomes). Prior to Wednesday's game, Farrell was asked if the team was considering demoting Bogaerts, and the manager shook off that idea. "When you get to the point where you aren't getting five days a week on the field, then you start to consider the alternative," Farrell told ESPN Boston's Kyle Brasseur. "We aren't at that point yet."
Farrell also told reporters that Bogaerts has been working with assistant hitting coach Victor Rodriguez to correct a mechanical flaw in his swing. Via the Boston Herald's John Tomase:
“More than anything, he’s rushing a little bit in the box,” Farrell said. “He’s rushing out to his landing and whether that allows him to see the ball clearly in flight, that’s where you see that early commitment and the slider is probably giving him a little bit of trouble right now.”
Rodriguez went into further detail. Bogaerts is opening up too early, which causes him to start his swing before he has even identified the pitch, leaving him susceptible to hard breaking balls away.
“This kid, when he’s really good and he stays in the big part of the field, the ball has more travel,” Rodriguez said. “Right now his first move is to open up a little too quick. I think he’s trying to do too much, instead of trusting what he’s got. When you commit before you’re seeing the ball and before you recognize it, you’re going to have trouble. You’ve got to see the ball before you can make the decision if you’re going to swing.”
Like anything else at the major league level, fixing that is easier said than done. Nonetheless, the team's commitment to both Bogaerts and Bradley (.208/.288/.298 for a 64 OPS+) taking their lumps at the major league level suggests that reality is already setting in for Cherington, Farrell and the rest of the brass. At 38-47, 8 1/2 games out of first place, the Sox aren't entirely dead in the water, not when the division-leading Blue Jays are only on an 89-win pace. But instead of going for quick and drastic fixes, the team may view the rest of the season as an opportunity to sort through their young players.
Toward that end, the Sox could take a seller's approach to the July 31 non-waiver deadline, with Drew among those who might be on the move, even if he doesn't bring back much in return. That would allow Bogaerts to move back to shortstop, in which case the team could give Middlebrooks, who's now out on a rehab assignment, one last shot at the third base job. Alternatively, they could let 26-year-old utilityman Brock Holt — at .322/.367/.441 one of their most productive hitters this year — play regularly at his natural position. Boston could also give 23-year-old prospect Garin Cecchini, generally viewed as the team's third baseman of the future, a long look, though his .257/.337/.336 showing at Triple-A Pawtucket suggests he'd still benefit from more seasoning.
If the team does ship Drew out, they've got several other players whom other contenders might eye, but that's an issue for another day. Likely they'll give Bogaerts another week or so to turn things around at the major league level, with the All-Star break providing a potential opportunity to refresh and reset at Pawtucket if his slide continues. As bad as his slump may be, his potential is still too great for the Red Sox to give up on him, both in 2014 and in the long term.