Red Sox have stabilizing 'X' factor at shortstop
Top prospect Bogaerts is here to stay amid changes, question marks after title
JUPITER, Fla. -- Things always change fast in baseball, even for the champions.
And sometimes, especially for the champions. That's the case for the Red Sox.
Just look at Xander Bogaerts.
A luxury item as a third baseman in the World Series, the gifted 21-year-old from Aruba is fast becoming an essential part of the 2014 Red Sox. While Stephen Drew remains unsigned, John Farrell is preparing to go into the season with Bogaerts as his shortstop.
Signed for $410,000 in 2009, Bogaerts rocketed through Boston's farm system. He never spent 104 games at any level, yet seemed perfectly comfortable when he was thrown into the playoffs, where his role grew round by round last October.
Bogaerts made his first appearance as a pinch-runner in Game 3 of the American League Division Series against Tampa Bay, then was used as a pinch-hitter in Game 4. He didn't get in the lineup until Game 5 of the AL Championship Series against Detroit, and he played his way into a major role in the World Series, sending the slumping Will Middlebrooks to the bench. Bogaerts hit .296 with four extra-base hits while drawing six walks in 34 postseason plate appearances.
Neophytes don't generally thrive under the brightest lights, but Bogaerts did. Now he's in line to become the Red Sox's 10th primary shortstop in the last 12 seasons, ending the constant shuffling at that position since Nomar Garciaparra was traded.
Since Garciaparra's fielding was deemed a fatal flaw by former general manager Theo Epstein in 2003, the Red Sox have played Orlando Cabrera, Edgar Renteria, Alex Gonzalez, Julio Lugo, Nick Green, Marco Scutaro, Mike Aviles and Drew as their regular shortstops. Only Lugo (2007-08) and Scutaro (2010-11) held their jobs in back-to-back seasons.
All signs point to Bogaerts being capable of being there a dozen seasons by himself. With the Grapefruit League in its second week, his confidence seems to be growing.
"Definitely the best I've felt so far in my whole Minor League career," Bogaerts said about his shortstop play. "All the work I've been putting in, especially with [coach Brian Butterfield] in camp, is paying off. I feel amazing right now."
Bogaerts' ability to hit Major League pitching seems a given at this point. He blasted a long home run on Wednesday against the Cardinals' Angel Castro, and turned the position over to Deven Marrero, a first-round pick from Arizona State in the 2012 First-Year Player Draft, for Thursday's game against the Marlins at Roger Dean Stadium. Bogaerts is 3-for-9 in four games.
There are other questions for the Red Sox, of course. There were always going to be some with Jacoby Ellsbury, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Drew leaving as free agents.
Jackie Bradley Jr. provides a homegrown option in center field, but he's not going to get the job handed to him. Grady Sizemore, a 30-30 player with the Indians in 2008, has stayed on the field for an extended period for the first time since 2011, becoming a more intriguing option every day.
Sizemore has had seven surgeries, but his knees are feeling stronger than they have in years. He could provide a nice alternative to Bradley if Farrell opts for more experience up the middle.
Bradley, 23, was a College World Series star at the University of South Carolina, and he hit .419 last spring to land a job on the Red Sox's Opening Day roster. He wound up hitting only .189 in four stints in Boston, however, creating doubt about whether he can replace much of Ellsbury's offense.
Farrell says he doesn't want Bradley to even think about Ellsbury, but that can happen given Ellsbury's significance on two championship teams, not to mention his move to the Yankees, which infuriates fans in Boston.
"There's been so much made about the loss of Jacoby Ellsbury, and Jackie has handled that in stride," Farrell said. "He's not trying to replace anyone. Just go out and perform to his capabilities. Provided he does it, we've got a very good center fielder."
The early returns are mixed. Bradley was 1-for-3 on Thursday and is hitting .231 in the early going.
Middlebrooks is a question mark too. He's got more experience than Bogaerts or Bradley, but he hasn't earned a full-time spot at third. Middlebrooks is 1-for-10 in his first four games, which hasn't quieted the doubts that have surrounded him since he burst on the scene while Kevin Youkilis was sidelined early in 2012.
Farrell was unhappy after Wednesday's 8-6 loss to the Cardinals, in particular one stretch in which Middlebrooks was charged with an error on one grounder to his left and both Middlebrooks and Bogaerts failed to make plays on singles that went just past them.
"We've got work to do, let's face it," Farrell said. "We're a week into the game schedule, but we've got a lot of work to do as a team."
Farrell knew Spring Training wasn't going to be easy. There's a danger of a hangover after the dream-like season in 2013, and questions about the heavy workload from the extended run, especially for Jon Lester, John Lackey and relievers Koji Uehara, Junichi Tazawa and Craig Breslow.
"The thing that we set out to do is to not skip any steps along the way in our preparation, not just assume that the last out recorded in Fenway is our starting point," Farrell said. "That was the end point to a long journey that began on the first day of Spring Training last year. When we talked in our first meeting, it was important to get back to the first day of Spring Training last year, as opposed to our most recent memory. We have a high number of returning players, and our work, our attention to detail, has been outstanding. We're still trying to get guys on the field. We haven't gotten everybody on the field yet because of nagging injuries. The overall attitude and work has been very good."
Ditto the early return from Bogaerts, who is going to be sticking around for a long time.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.