PAWTUCKET -- On a late March day in Fort Myers, Fla., Xander Bogaerts could have accepted what the lineup card stipulated and left it at that.
The Red Sox prospect and now the newest member of the PawSox, however, was comfortable enough in his own skin to approach the powers-that-be and show his eagerness and enthusiasm for the game he is paid to play.
According to one staff member, the sequence helped cast the player in a whole new light.
“He didn’t want to be disrespectful,” explained Andy Fox, Boston’s minor league infield coordinator, who spent nine seasons in the big leagues. “Xander has that quiet presence about him.”
Fox recounted that, back in March, Bogaerts had just returned to Boston’s spring-training facility following a three-week stint with the Netherlands team in the World Baseball Classic. As he was less than 12 hours removed from stepping off a flight from Tokyo, Japan, where Team Netherlands saw its WBC pursuit end, the organization slotted him for DH duties to give him an easier day’s work.
“He was still in big-league camp, but they sent him down just to catch him up,” Fox said earlier this week from his California home. “Plus he had been playing third base in the WBC.”
But Bogaerts wasn’t looking to put in a half-day’s work. He was seeking to get reacquainted with his natural position and the sooner the better – after the time he spent moonlighting as a third baseman during the WBC, he was ready to get back to his preferred position of shortstop, the sooner the better.
“It’s hard to get back in a rhythm defensively if you’re not taking ground balls where you normally play,” Fox said.
Bogaerts wanted no part of the easy road, and Fox pinpointed exactly why.
“We’re aware that he wants to be a major-league shortstop and he goes about it the right way,” Fox said. “He understands the exposure to other positions in that it creates versatility, but he’s so motivated to be a major-league shortstop that he’s going to exhaust everything.
“No one is ever going to say that he didn’t put the effort in.”
There are two talking points that are usually the first to the surface whenever Bogaerts is mentioned among the usual observers of promising Red Sox farm hands. The first is to gush over his offensive production and the fact that he’s the best position player to come up through the Red Sox system in a number of years.
Once that has been duly noted, the talk shifts to defense and how this 6-foot-3, 185-pounder “projects” better at the big league level as a third baseman. Only time will tell where this 20-year-old phenom will end up, but know this: Xander Bogaerts still has “SS” – not “3B” or even “DH” – firmly affixed to his name.
“I won’t speak for everyone else, but as far as what we’ve seen, he looks like a shortstop to me,” said Portland Sea Dogs manager Kevin Boles one May afternoon while sitting in New Britain’s dugout.
The first time Fox saw Bogaerts up close was spring training in 2011 when he began his stint as minor league infield coordinator (Ironically, Fox inherited the position from current Pawtucket manager Gary DiSarcina). That March, Bogaerts was set to begin his second pro season after signing as an international free agent at age 17 in August 2009, a deal that came 2 ½ weeks prior to Boston agreeing to terms with a Cuban defector named Jose Iglesias.
Fox said his initial findings on Bogaerts were of the glass-is-half-full variety.
“Obviously you see the athletic ability and skill set. You see the hands and feet, but he was really raw. You felt, ‘Gosh, if you can clean this and that up, he’s got a chance,’” Fox remembers. “You can have the greatest stuff in the world, but if a player’s not willing to put the work in and buy into the process … to Xander’s credit he’s done that.”
Growing pains were mitigated due to Bogaerts’ proclivity to not get discouraged by errors, which he committed by the bushel during his first two minor-league seasons – 21 errors in 59 games with the Sox’ Dominican League operation in 2010 followed by 26 errors in 71 games with Single-A Greenville in 2011.
“What’s great about Xander is that he never beat himself up. He was able to separate and say, ‘Hey, I made a mistake now. I’m not going to make that same mistake again,’” Fox said.
While Bogaerts’ totals were certainly high, they weren’t as bad as the 56 errors in 126 contests committed by Derek Jeter in 1993, back when the New York Yankees legend was plying his trade in Single-A Greensboro. At that time, Fox was a third-base hopeful who was also climbing his way up through the Yankees’ system after getting selected in the second round of 1989 MLB Draft.
Fox and Jeter were teammates in 1994 at Double-A Albany-Colonie before the pair moved on to Triple-A Columbus the following year. The former had a front row seat to see Jeter regroup – 54 errors between the ’94 and ’95 seasons – and has used the latter’s willingness to overcome what was a glaring deficiency as a guidepost as to why the Red Sox did not overreact to Bogaerts’ early struggles with the glove.
“If there was something that he couldn’t do, then you say, ‘Okay, maybe you move him to center field,’” said Fox. “You have to have patience when you see the skill set. Obviously Derek Jeter is Derek Jeter, but (what he endured) does create some patience because you see the skills that allow him to play shortstop.”
While most comparisons between one player who is headed to Cooperstown with one that has one week of Triple-A experience would seem premature, there’s one area where Fox feels Jeter and Bogaerts can be mentioned in the same sentence.
“I guess the only thing that’s similar is each one’s pace through the system,” cited Fox about Jeter and Bogaerts, both of whom reached Class AAA as 20-year-olds. “Derek had a quiet presence about himself and I think Xander possesses those same characteristics with the energy he plays with and the way he engages with his teammates. For someone who’s 20, he has a maturity about him that is hard to teach or hard to find at times.”
Of the 662 big-league games Fox played in the field in the major leagues, 264 of them came at shortstop. Listed at 6’4”, Fox was asked about the challenges that the 6’3” Bogaerts faces when manning this demanding position, which demands from its practitioners the utmost skill in everything from positioning prior to the pitch to making strong, accurate throws across the diamond.
“You’re further away from the ground, so fundamentally he needs to get into his legs more. He’s big, but he also has long legs, too,” Fox explained. “It can be challenging, but because of his athleticism, he’s now starting to have better body control. He knows where he should be, which is a good indicator because you can now self-coach him.
“You can throw someone 6-4 out there, but he may not have the quickness, agility or arm strength that Xander does, or the ability to stay within himself to not get all out of whack,” Fox added. “In the beginning, we broke it down right from the setup to approaching the ball. His skills came across as very elementary in the drills, yet as you added some building blocks, you saw the consistency in one little thing that enabled him to move quickly on to the next thing.”
To borrow a line from the Tom Emanski videos that were on a continuous advertising loop in the ‘90s, Fox feels Bogaerts’ commitment to the game enable him to stay well ahead of the curve.
“He’s a tremendous athlete, but to me he maximizes what he has, which allows him to play shortstop consistently,” Fox said. “I think a lot of times, young players talk about wanting to play in the big leagues, which is obvious to anyone you come across. He’s doing the things to get to the big leagues instead of talking about it. He wants to do the things to be a big-league shortstop, or just get to the big leagues in general.”
There’s no disputing how much Bogaerts has improved as a fielder – he made 21 errors in 119 games last year and thus far in 2013 has 10 errors in 54 games – but some have expressed that he still has to improve before being a finished product.
“The message I got from Andy is that Xander still has the habit of standing tall when trying to field groundballs,” said Pawtucket’s DiSarcina on the day Bogaerts joined his ball club. “It’s about getting him into a consistent position where he can field the same way every time.”
It’s the duty of DiSarcina and Fox to liberally use their motivational sandpaper to smooth out the young infielder’s rough edges.
That’s why the words of Fox, who saw Bogaerts in person 15 times this season at Double A and is lined up to visit McCoy Stadium when the PawSox kickoff a homestand next Tuesday, carry much weight. Just like with Jeter, the 42-year-old Fox has an up-close view of what he hopes will be a sharp defensive turnaround. Such memories help him believe in a youngster who knows that the only way to improve is by not accepting shortcuts, such as DH’ing in a minor league spring training game.
“Sometimes you forget he’s 20 just because of the way he acts, but the strides he’s made have been huge,” Fox said. “I’ve seen Xander the last three years and he makes every play that a major-league shortstop needs to make pretty consistently for his age right now.”
Follow Brendan McGair on Twitter @BWMcGair03