Last week, the Red Sox made a large splash in the 2014 free agent pool, signing both Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez to long-term contracts. This came as a surprise, because the Red Sox have persistently made it clear that Xander Bogaerts is a cornerstone of their future infield. Uncharacteristically, the elder among the left-side trio (Hanley Ramirez) is the player required to learn a new position, and as highly improbable as it was for Hanley to expect to play shortstop for the remainder of his career, it is fairly unconventional that a veteran would voluntarily change positions, particularly for an unproven, significantly younger player.
The fact that Hanley's contract is contingent on his learning another spot on the field makes it pretty clear that the Red Sox think they have something special in Bogaerts. Despite some setbacks in plate discipline and questionable defensive numbers, he appears to be locked in as Boston's shortstop of the future.
In his age-20 season in 2013, Bogaerts joined Boston as a September call-up, and earned his way onto the postseason 25-man roster after playing in only 18 regular season games. Adding him to the postseason roster proved to be a fantastic move, and in 12 postseason games, Bogaerts had a slash line of .296/.412/.481 (aided by a .421 BABIP). Although his postseason K-rate was similar to his usual (roughly 26%), Bogaerts walk rate of 17.6% was the highest of his professional career.
The storybook September call-up ended with an improbable World Series Championship, and Bogaerts all but guaranteed the starting shortstop job in Boston, come April 2014.
This past season, Bogaerts played in 144 games, and ended the season with a .240/.297/.362 slash line. He produced 0.4 fWAR, ranking 19th among the 22 qualified MLB shortstops (only Jean Segura, Yunel Escobar, and Derek Jeter had a lower fWAR).
From a plate discipline perspective, Bogaerts' 2014 strikeout rate was notably above league average, at 23%. In addition, his 6.6% walk rate was down from his average rate in the minors, down slightly from his brief regular season stint in 2013, and was less than half of what it was during last year's playoffs.
Part of the problem in 2014 was a poor eye against fastballs. Swinging at only 63% of the hard stuff in the zone, and making fairly weak contact, Bogaerts made a significant number of infield outs:
For a player who came up with a ‘plus-to-better' power ceiling tagged to him, his current batted ball profile against the hard stuff will have to change for Bogaerts to get anywhere near his supposed 30 home runs power ceiling.
From the infield batted balls, it is obvious that Bogaerts is not taking advantage of the two-seamer / sinker or the four seamers pitchers are throwing him; currently, he is churning those fastballs into weakly hit outs, rather than driving them for extra base hits:
Defensively, Bogaerts has been below average per FanGraphs' Defense metric. That's consistent with his scouting report, which labeled him as having less-than-ideal footwork at the position. Several scouts believe in the athleticism and the work-ethic enough to buy-in that he is an everyday player, but per soxprospects.com, his defense is "choppy at times", which may cause him to move from short to third base or the outfield. The outlook probably looks better for Bogaerts to stay at shortstop, considering a veteran has volunteered to move to left, and the Red Sox have a plethora of other outfielders.
For 2015, FanGraphs' Steamer projections forecast a .260/.323/.408 slash line for Bogaerts, as well as 1.6 fWAR, which would be a positive step forward in the 21-year-old's career. He is still coming up the aging curve (as opposed to the two players Boston just signed, who are on the downward portion) and should continue to improve his plate discipline. Boston hopes the raw power is harnessed, but that too will come with more MLB reps.
There is a lot to like about Bogaerts's potential, which is not something to gloss over — after all, he was the youngest regular position player in baseball last year. If he can continue to make adjustments at the plate, improve his efficiency against fastballs, and increase his walk rate, Bogarts can mitigate some of the issues he has shown on the field, and could reach the MVP-caliber level referenced in some scouting reports.
It is difficult to take away significant conclusions from small defensive sample sizes, and Bogarts can wash away the defensive concerns if he hits at a more consistent pace. In any case, he is likely to be a better defender than Hanley Ramirez, particularly as the former enters his prime years, and the latter his decline years. It will be interesting to see how the Red Sox manage Ramirez in left field, particularly if Bogaerts starts 2015 struggling at short; in any case, the long-term future of Bogaerts looks bright.
Steven Martano is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @SMartano.