figures to be an important piece for the Cardinals
as they look to return to the postseason for the third straight year. (Brian Kersey/Getty Images)
In the past five days, three of the game's top prospects -- Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts, Mets catcher Travis d'Arnaud and Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong -- made their major league debuts, and two of them, Bogaerts and Wong, could prove to be key players for their respective teams down the stretch and into the postseason.
That's not to diminish d'Arnaud, who doubled for his first major league hit Tuesday night while catching a solid start by fellow top prospect Zack Wheeler. He and Wheeler are both key parts of the Mets' youth movement, which also includes Cy Young candidate Matt Harvey and pitching prospect Noah Syndergaard, who came over from the Blue Jays with d'Arnaud in the R.A. Dickey trade and could join Harvey and Wheeler in the rotation next year. It's just that, while the Mets have been playing winning baseball since the start of July, going 25-21 (.543) over that span, they're no real threat to upset the National League's swiftly congealing playoff picture because they currently stand in fifth place in the wild-card race, 12 games behind the Reds for the last playoff spot.
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The American League races are far more fluid, however, and Bogaerts, whom Baseball America rated the eighth-best prospect in the game coming into this season and who made his major league debut Tuesday night, joins a Red Sox team currently engaged in a dogfight for a postseason berth. The Sox are currently tied atop the AL East with the Rays, but have two more losses than Tampa Bay, and the third- and fourth-place teams in the wild card race, the Indians and division-rival Orioles, both trail Boston by just four losses.
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Bogaerts joins that team not as a savior, but as a potential platoon partner for lefty-swinging shortstop Stephen Drew, who has hit .193/.246/.342 against southpaws thus far this season and has struggled throughout his career against same-sided pitching. Bogaerts could also draw starts at third base, which many think will be his ultimate position, should Will Middlebrooks slump again. Middlebrooks lost the hot corner job to a hot-swinging Jose Iglesias in June and spent July in Triple-A, but Iglesias, whose hitting was largely a fluke, was traded to Detroit at the deadline. Middlebrooks has hit .452/.538/.645 in 10 games since being re-installed at the position on Aug. 10, but that, too, is clearly a small-sample spike supported by well-placed singles rather than the big power production that won Middlebrooks the job last year.
It remains to be seen whether or not Bogaerts, who won't turn 21 until Oct. 1, can make the quick adjustment to the major leagues required for him to have an impact down the stretch and beyond. He is the youngest Red Sox player since Dwight Evans debuted in 1972, and in ranking him the team's top prospect prior to this season, Baseball Prospectus called Bogaerts a "high risk" player with "lots of developmental space between present/future" and noted that fact that he can struggle against offspeed pitches. Bogaerts went 0-for-3 with a strikeout in his debut Tuesday night, but a 4-for-4 performance wouldn't have necessarily been any more informative. He hit .284/.369/.453 in 60 Triple-A games after besting all of those numbers in Double-A earlier in the season. If he can do something close to that for the Red Sox in spot starts at short and third, he could prove to be a key difference in a close race.
As for Wong, he has started at second base for the Cardinals in four of the five games since his promotion, sitting only against a lefty starter (Wong bats lefthanded), pushing David Freese to the bench while Matt Carpenter shifted to third in three of those games. Freese, the 2011 World Series MVP, has seen his power vanish this season and has been in an awful slump lately, hitting a mere .195/.261/.268 in 46 plate appearances since his last home run, which was just his sixth of the season. Wong went hitless in his first two starts, but is 5-for-10 with a double and three stolen bases in as many attempts in his last two. A first-round draft pick out of the University of Hawaii in 2011, the 22-year-old Wong projects as more of a solid major league starter than a star, but he hit .303/.369/.466 in Triple-A this season while stealing 20 bases in just 21 attempts and adding 10 homers and 8 triples. His biggest weakness, particularly as it pertains to St. Louis' current roster, is that he can't play shortstop.
Don't be surprised to see lineups with Wong at second and Freese on the bench become the norm for the Redbirds down the stretch and into the postseason. The Cardinals have not been shy about using the fruits of their farm system in big games in recent years. Think of Allen Craig and Lance Lynn in 2011, and Pete Kozma, Shelby Miller and Trevor Rosenthal last year. Of course, it helps that St. Louis has had one of the best farm systems in baseball. Miller, still a rookie, has been the team's No. 2 starter this season, and five of the seven men in their bullpen, including Rosenthal, are rookies, while first baseman Matt Adams, yet another rookie, has been a huge weapon off the bench. Wong was only the team's sixth-best prospect coming into the season, but he could be second only to Miller among first-year Cardinals in terms of his importance down the stretch.
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