NEW BRITAIN, Conn. – There’s a certain aura that surrounds those lauded as top prospects in the Red Sox farm system, and it only intensifies the higher they progress through the system.
Not to get all National Geographic, but to watch a prospect go from unproven commodity to an in-demand is akin to a caterpillar transforming into a butterfly. With each passing prospect list revision or on-field update from the player’s present port of call, it only wets the appetite of those curious minds that clamor for additional info pertaining to these BoSox hopefuls. Thanks to this information age where nothing it seems remains hidden for very long, the ability to dissect and debate future merits is entirely plausible.
Today’s farmhands not only have to make adjustments to the challenges that each level poses, but they also must learn how to manage their reputation that can fluctuate to the point that the name and number on the back of the jersey is swapped out in favor of a bull’s-eye. In a nutshell, that’s what Red Sox rising shortstop Xander Bogaerts has had to contend with this season.
Yes, Bogaerts started 2012 as the No. 2 prospect in Boston’s system, this according to Baseball America. He was also just 19 and stationed in High-A Salem after being a non-roster invitee to spring training. At the time, the idea of promoting Bogaerts at some point to Double-A seemed improbable. The talent was omnipresent, but given his age, the Red Sox could afford to take matters slowly with Bogaerts, understanding that time very much remained on the youngster’s side.
Bogaerts had other ideas. The native of Aruba tore through the Carolina League, hitting .302 with a .883 OPS and 15 homers in 383 at-bats. The teenager was also selected to the Futures Game that took place in Kansas City, an honor that only furthered the intrigue surrounding him.
By the time Bogaerts touched down in Portland on Aug. 9, stargazing had given way to daydreams of him performing at Fenway Park sooner rather than later. Such a seismic shift tends to happen whenever a blue chipper settles in within New England’s borders. Once he’s in Portland, the sentiment is that it’s only a matter of time before he reaches Pawtucket and Boston thereafter.
To his credit, Bogaerts has been able to block out the distractions and resist the urge of heaping additional pressure upon his sleek 6-foot-3, 175-pound frame.
“To be honest, I’m not taking anything for granted,” said the soft-spoken Bogaerts while standing in the visitors’ clubhouse at New Britain Stadium last week. “I’m not putting any pressure on myself. Having fun is my top priority.”
The youthful exuberance of Bogaerts is perhaps the best shield a player in his noteworthy position can ask for when combating the ever-expanding chronicles of his rising career.
“Here he is, 19 years old and mature beyond his years,” notes Portland manager Kevin Boles. “When you start looking at the package, the ability is there. Here’s a guy who profiles at shortstop and has a chance to be an impact bat. There’s a lot to work with here.”
Even though Bogaerts forced his way to Portland following a strong stint in Salem, it’s important to remember that we’re talking about someone who won’t celebrate his 20th birthday until Oct. 1.
“We stay away from timeframes. All we’re doing is trying to concentrate on what he’s doing on that particular day,” said Boles, “but it’s an exciting package to watch. This is a guy that a lot of people in baseball hold in high regard. We definitely do and we’re lucky to have him in our uniform.”
Bogaerts carried a .309 batting mark into Wednesday’s game for Portland. Such a figure is tempered slightly due to back-to-back three-strikeout games as well as the nine base hits he’s managed in his last 40 at-bats. While such declining figures could be linked to late-season fatigue, it also shows that even those held in high esteem still have room for growth.
After all Bogaerts is just 19 – albeit with a high ceiling.
All Bryce Brentz needed was some time to acclimate himself to Eastern League pitching. Once the 23-year-old outfielder figured a few things out, he began producing at a clip that behooves his power-hitting capabilities.
Toss out the window the .216 average with 29 strikeouts in 88 at-bats that Brentz fashioned in April. In 365 at-bats spanning the next four months, Brentz is hitting .318. Sixteen of his 17 home runs have come over that span as he’s learned the value of making pitchers go through their off-speed repertoire before they’re faced with no other feasible option but to come after Brentz with fastballs.
“April is what I always go back to,” said Brentz, named Eastern League Player of the Week after enjoying a scorching six-day stretch that saw him bat .536 (15-for-28) and drive in 10 runs. “I was in a new league, but once I made some adjustments, I’ve given myself a chance to finish up strong.”
So strong in fact that it’s debatable whether Brentz wants the season to end. He’ll end up leading the Sea Dogs in RBI (76 entering Wednesday) and has an outside shot with 17 homers to catch recent Pawtucket addition Jeremy Hazelbacker for top honors in that category (Hazelbacker departed Hadlock Field with 19 round trippers).
“The way these guys evolve only comes through experience and more at-bats,” said Boles about Brentz. “He’s a guy who’s going to take risks, but he’s also going to impact the baseball.”
Count Boles as among those who believe pitcher Stolmy Pimentel benefited greatly from repeating Double A, which the righty did this season after struggling so badly with the Sea Dogs in 2011 – 9.12 ERA in 15 starts – that he was sent to Salem.
The skipper also cautioned that Pimentel is still evolving, meaning it’s important to look beyond the 4.84 ERA in 21 starts with Portland in 2012.
“Everybody’s putting this guy on some kind of clock or whatever. He’s a 22-year-old with a big arm,” Boles said. “He’s got a fastball with some life and pretty good sink. He shows a plus slider at times and an above-average changeup. He’s also shown a little bit more coordination as far as his delivery.
“He’s someone who went through some tough times, but he’s battled through it,” Boles delved further. “He never left the radar and remains a legitimate guy.”
Boles was asked if the ankle injury that caused outfield prospect Jackie Bradley Jr. to miss some time recently was beneficial in the sense that it afforded the 22-year-old to catch his breath and see the game from a different perspective. In the skipper’s eyes, the best teaching mechanism is actual game experience, not observing the action from the bench.
“We want him to watch the game; the game’s the best teacher,” Boles said. “A lot has been thrown at Jackie and he’s had a lot of success and attention. He takes it in stride, but we want to keep our guys on the field, there’s no doubt about that.”
Bradley returned to Portland’s lineup Wednesday, his first action since Aug. 20. Between Salem and Portland, the former University of South Carolina product is hitting .319 with a .913 OPS in 124 games.