The next Hanley? Why Red Sox prospect Xander Bogaerts could be the next big thing

by: Alex Speier on Mon, 06/11/2012 - 7:55am

The Red Sox farm system has yielded numerous stars over the past decade. But as the team migrates south to Miami to play the Marlins, the organization will reunite with the player who possessed arguably the most dazzling skill set of anyone to come through its minor league ranks in this decade.

As a teenager, Hanley Ramirez commenced a run as a three-time top prospect in the Red Sox system. He was named the top prospect in both the Rookie Level Gulf Coast League and the more advanced New York-Penn League as an 18-year-old in 2002, and he possessed the across-the-board tools set that came with a can’t-miss label.

This is how Baseball America described Ramirez a decade ago:

Managers were so enthralled with Ramirez' five-tool ability that they compared him to Alex Rodriguez and Nomar Garciaparra at the same stage of their careers.

"He's awesome," Orioles manager Jesus Alfaro said. "He's tall and thin like A-Rod, and has similar actions. He's got range and arm strength, and is capable of making the spectacular play. And he's an outstanding hitter."

"He has the gift," Reds manager Edgar Caceres said. "He has great bat speed and should hit for both power and average. There are no holes in his swing."

As a teenager, Ramirez could do everything -- hit, hit for power, run, throw, play shortstop -- with observers left shaking their heads, wondering only whether he would apply himself in a fashion to develop into a superstar.

It is rare that such obvious ability presents itself, and when it does, baseball lifers cannot help but notice. Such gifts are not a prerequisite for major league stardom -- Dustin Pedroia, say hello -- but the exposure to such remarkable talent at such a young age is always memorable.

And now, for the first time, arguably, since Ramirez’s departure, the Red Sox have a young prospect who is inspiring similar amazement at a ridiculously young age. Indeed, the first time that several Sox officials laid eyes on Xander Bogaerts as a 16-year-old at Fenway Park, where he stopped for a workout after playing in a baseball tournament in Bangor, Maine, they could not help but think of Ramirez.

“[Former Red Sox GM Theo Epstein] was out on the field and everyone else, they couldn’t get over how the ball jumped off his bat,” said Mike Lord, the man who scouted Bogaerts for the Sox in the player’s native country of Aruba. “He would backspin the ball to right-center, get inside the ball, drop the head and go to left field really well.

“At first, you start thinking, who’s this guy looking like? The first guy they talked about -- usually they ask for a comp -- was Hanley Ramirez. It was a different look, but they said, he probably has more bat speed and more tools than Hanley Ramirez, or just as good.

“There weren’t any red flags of, ‘Should we do this?’ ” said Lord. “It was, ‘Yes, let’s get it done.’ ”

THE DISCOVERY

Lord, then a Red Sox international cross-checker, was wrapping up a two-day trip to Aruba during the build-up to the international amateur signing period in 2009. He’d seen some players in whom he might have some interest, most notably a catcher with power potential named Jair Bogaerts.

But as he neared conclusion of his evaluations, he asked one final question to those around the workout. Was there anyone else on the island, he wondered, whom he should see before heading back to the States?

Yes. Yes there was.

Xander Bogaerts, the twin brother of Jair, was consigned to his bed while completing his recovery from chicken pox. But everyone to whom Lord talked at the workout said the same thing: This was the guy to see.

The scout met Bogaerts’ uncle, Glenroy Brown, the man who had given the twins their grounding in baseball. A call was made, and after some initial reluctance, Bogaerts’ mother, Sandra, relented. Bogaerts could go to the workout.

“Xander shows up, and he’s broad-shouldered, nice, athletic-looking guy,” recalled Lord, who spent 2012 as the coach at Trevecca Nazarene University. “He looked like he just woke up. It was like a rock star just showed up out of a limo. All the guys love him and he was so personable to everyone, had this great smile. They’re asking how he’s doing, hugging him. It was like, ‘Wow, Xander’s here.’ ”

Lord tempered his expectations given that the 16-year-old had been bed-ridden and likely hadn’t swung a bat or, for that matter, done much of anything on a baseball field, for weeks. Bogaerts stretched briefly then went out to shortstop to take some grounders.

It did not take Lord long to realize the caliber of player at hand.

“Right away, you’re like, ‘Holy cow,’ ” said Lord. “The fields are horrendous. There’s half-rock, half-sand. Every other ball is flying off on a bad hop. He gets a couple bad hops, but he makes plays, and you could just see the athleticism.”

Defensive tools? Check.

A scrimmage started. It took little time for Lord to have his second “holy cow” moment.

“There’s a guy on second base, a ball is hit up the middle. He dives, lays out, catches it on the ground, spins, has enough baseball awareness to know he doesn’t have a play at first, then he throws it from his butt all the way to home plate and throws the guy out,” said Lord. “I’m like, ‘Wow, this guy has a feel for the game.’ Right away you could see that.”

Baseball instincts? Check.

Bogaerts took only a handful or so of batting practice swings before he stepped into the box in a scrimmage. The quality of pitching wasn’t great, but …

“There was a little 10-15 mph wind coming in from left field,” said Lord. “He blasts one. He turns on a fastball and puts it into a house through the wind a long way in his first at-bat. Next time up, he went oppo to right-center, got one up in the air and took it out.

“You knew by looking at him that he was a projectable kid,” he added. “Power’s so hard to find, and he had some crazy bat speed.”

Hit tool with power? Check.

Lord had some video from the performance. His reports on amateurs were usually lengthy, meticulous. But he e-mailed Craig Shipley (then the VP of international scouting for the Sox) with an uncharacteristically brief message: “Ship, watch this.”

“In about two seconds, my phone starts ringing,” said Lord. “He’s like, ‘Holy cow, where did you find this guy?’ ”

Shipley immediately booked his flight to Aruba. Lord and Shipley built a relationship with the family, and by the time other teams had discovered him, it was too late. Once he finished high school that summer, both Bogaerts brothers would sign with the Sox, with Xander receiving a $410,000 bonus and Jair (who was dealt to the Cubs this spring as part of the compensation agreement involving Epstein) getting $180,000.

Technically, Lord discovered him. But while the former scout takes immense satisfaction in the fact that he is credited with having signed the young shortstop, and that he built a meaningful relationship with the family (Bogaerts’ mother, Sandra, remains in touch with Lord via e-mail), he downplays the notion that this was a scouting revelation.

“As soon as you saw him, you were like, ‘Yeah, this doesn’t come along too often,’ ” said Lord. “It’s like watching Cindy Crawford walk into a dive bar. You’re like, ‘Who’s the best-looking one in the bar?’ Well, that girl right there is. It’s pretty easy to see. It’s not like I had to dissect it.”

That didn’t make the discovery any less rewarding, particularly given the satisfaction in the idea that it was the relationship built by Lord and Shipley with Bogaerts’ family that helped to ensure that he would become a member of the Red Sox.

“I’ve got enough stories of getting searched in Mexico that you’d rather forget,” said Lord. “This is a story worth telling.”

THE CAREER

It remains early in Bogaerts’ professional career, creating a need, in the words of international scouting director Eddie Romero, to “pump the brakes a little bit” on the hype machine surrounding the phenom.

“We have to remember he’s such a young guy at an advanced level and not get too ahead of ourselves,” said Romero. “We’re very excited about what he does, his potential, and when you throw in the work ethic with the potential tools, it makes it even more exciting. But you do have to temper that. … He is still very young.”

Still, it becomes more difficult to temper expectations based on the eye-opening performance to date.

A year ago, Bogaerts had a dominant performance in extended spring training, convincing the Sox to take the unusual step of promoting him directly to Single-A Greenville at age 18. There, though one of the youngest handful of players in the league, Bogaerts hit .260 with a .324 OBP, .509 slugging mark, .834 OPS and 16 homers in just 72 games, with the power total obliterating any expectations that either the Sox or Bogaerts himself had for the South Atlantic League.

Beyond the numbers, Bogaerts showed terrific aptitude at the plate, a great work ethic (“I like to train -- I don’t like to sit down and be lazy,” he said), athleticism and a beyond-his-years willingness to drive the ball with power to all fields, all while maintaining a textbook fluid swing.

“My uncle always told us to go to the middle. Maybe that’s what I kept in my mind,” said Bogaerts. “I’m not a pull hitter trying for home runs. I like to go to right field, center field. It’s just natural.”

The Feats of Xander became a common topic among members of the Sox organization last year. See the ball he hit over the batter’s eye? The 0-2 breaking ball he drove out to right-center?

Ask members of the Sox organization to whom Bogaerts’ package of tools and performance at such a young age compares and the list of answers is short. Some profess to have never seen the combination of tools and playability at such a young age; some mention the breathtaking pro debut of Ryan Westmoreland in 2009; others suggest that Hanley Ramirez -- the player whom Bogaerts cites as his favorite -- was the last Sox prospect to be so good and so young, albeit with a different skill set. 

“Hanley was probably a more electric all-around athlete, better runner, at that age a better first step on defense, but less advanced as a hitter and less feel for his swing than Xander has now,” Sox GM Ben Cherington, who was farm director when Ramirez made his way through the system, said earlier this year. “They’re different players, but both with big upside at the same age.”

It has been more of the same this year in High-A Salem. Bogaerts is again one of the youngest players in the league, as only one other position player is younger than him. Yet he is once again performing as one of the top players at the level against older competition.

After a 3-for-3 performance on Sunday in which he hit a homer and a double, Bogaerts has a .292 average, .360 on-base percentage, .489 slugging mark (sixth in the league) and .848 OPS (eighth) with eight homers (tied-eighth) and 25 extra-base hits (sixth) for Salem this year.

Those qualify as big numbers in the Carolina League, at a level that suppresses offense in dramatic fashion as compared to the South Atlantic League. Bogaerts currently makes his home in a power-hitting graveyard in Salem, yet even the larger dimensions of his home park have not dampened the evidence of his abilities -- even as opponents have taken a different approach to attacking him.

“Coming off the season he had last year, guys are probably pitching him differently than they did when he was an 18-year-old in Greenville. I think that’s something he’s had to adjust to -- more breaking balls -- and some of the expectations of being named a prospect all over the place,” said Sox farm director Ben Crockett. “He’s done a really good job overall.

“Overall, the talent continues to come out. I think the power numbers have been solid,” he added. “He’s got excellent raw power. It will be well above average. It’s just a matter of being able to get to that more consistently. The power numbers are certainly there this year and will bear out more over time.”

The performance would be impressive enough in its own right, but it’s nothing short of dazzling given his age and relative experience (after all, he spent just half of last year in Greenville). Since 2000, just five players (Royals prospect Wil Myers in 2010, Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman of the Braves in 2009, Andy Marte (then of the Braves) in 2003, Grady Sizemore of the Indians in 2002) have accomplished the feat.

Of those, Myers still ranks as a top prospect; he’s crushed 21 homers in 59 games in Double-A and Triple-A this year. Heyward and Freeman were Rookie of the Year runners-up in 2010 and 2011 with the Braves. Sizemore is a three-time All-Star. Only Marte did not emerge from such lofty status as a top prospect.

“He’s definitely been a special case where he’s been this advanced at this early age,” said Romero.

The Sox are mindful that tools and potential -- even for someone like Bogaerts, whose intelligence and drive are to date unquestioned -- don’t guarantee future success. Because he has already been put on a fast track, there will be struggles at some point against more advanced pitchers with sharp breaking stuff. He is still working on pitch recognition and the ability to implement the Sox’ preferred approach of selective aggression at the plate, though his improved on-base percentage (up from .324 last year to .360 this year) suggests progress.

“We know it’s not going to be a straight line,” noted Cherington. “We’ll assume there’s going to be some ups and downs in performance.”

There is also the question of future position. Though Bogaerts is a shortstop, at 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds, he is filling out in a fashion that may ultimately lead to a shift to either the outfield or third base. The Sox have been aware of that since signing him.

“I didn’t know how long we were going to let him stay at short. We even told him that. We said, ‘Man, you may end up going to the outfield at some point,’ ” said Lord. “I thought maybe he could be a center fielder, because he could run around a little bit and maybe eat up some ground in the outfield.”

That said, for now, he will continue to develop as a shortstop unless or until his physical development dictates otherwise. It is a position where he’s shown what Crockett describes as average range, good first-step quickness and athleticism while being “far more consistent than maybe what you’d expect from a 19-year-old playing shortstop in High-A for his first full complete season,” with his total of 14 errors qualifying as entirely respectable given his age and seasoning.

As for the future? Even if Bogaerts does end up moving off of shortstop, then the Sox occasionally daydream a player with 30-plus home run potential whether at third or an outfield corner, and a chance to become a special talent thanks in no small part to his drive to make the most of his abilities.

“He’s always shown an incredible work ethic. I think that’s a huge separator for him,” said Romero. “He loves working. He enjoys hitting in the cage. Those are elements of a recipe for future success.”

Already, for a player who remains years from the majors, the drumbeat of anticipation is starting. Yet even as he begins to catch wind of the “Next Hanley” hype, Bogaerts insists he cares less about potential than process.

“It makes me feel really special [to be mentioned with Ramirez]. He’s a big guy, an MVP type, a batting champ. It makes you feel honored,” said Bogaerts. “But I don’t think, ‘Wow, my name is becoming mentioned.’ I’ve just got to keep working hard to get where [Ramirez] is. That’s what I’m trying to do.”