On the surface, Xander Bogaerts is this year’s answer to Baltimore’s Manny Machado. Both are talented 20-year-olds with left-side-of-the-infield pedigree who have skyrocketed up the organizational ladder, each making their respective debut on an American League East squad during the height of a playoff race.
The genesis behind bringing up a youngster who has not yet reached the legal drinking age was actually broken down into simple terms. Baltimore wanted no part of fitting a harness of unrealistic expectations on Machado, who made the leap from Double A to the majors based on his ability to shore up the hot corner.
“They told him, ‘You are our best defensive option at third base.’ (Orioles manager Buck Showalter) called him into the office and said, ‘All we want you to do is catch the ball. Don’t worry about your hitting. For the next two months, just catch the ball and throw it across the diamond,” said an American League scout. “That’s it!”
Translation: Machado could have been mired in the worst slump of his pro career, but he wasn’t going to pay the price by collecting dust on the bench. Showalter’s message was a clever attempt to put this future franchise cornerstone at total ease by making him understand that Baltimore’s postseason fate will not squarely fall on his shoulders.
“Anything else you bring to the table is gravy,” noted the scout. “Never mind your offensive press clippings. Forget the bat.”
Looking at Machado’s 2012 minor-league season, he hit .269 against Eastern League pitching with 11 home runs and 59 RBI and a .352 on-base percentage. He was an everyday shortstop in the minors before Baltimore started to tinker in the same fashion that the Red Sox did with Bogaerts while he based in Pawtucket. Machado shifted over to third base, an experiment that lasted all of two Class AA games before he was asked to fill out a change of address form.
The premise of Baltimore viewing Machado through a defensive prism became clearer when they looked at Wilson Betemit, who prior to Machado coming on board was the Orioles’ primary third baseman. Betemit’s Ultimate Zone Ranking in 608.2 innings at third base last season was minus-4.6. (Note: UZR helps measure the number of defensive plays a ballplayer makes both inside and outside his defensive zone.)
The Orioles accomplished their primary objective when they upgraded from Betemit to the neophyte Machado, who went on to post a more respectable 5.3 UZR in the 468 innings he logged at third base following his major-league debut on August 9, 2012. He tackled the only item listed on the to-do list handed to him by Showalter head-on, which in turn enabled him to emerge as one of the key storylines in Baltimore’s first foray into October baseball in nearly two decades.
In case you’re wondering, the O’s did receive offensive “gravy” from Machado in the form of seven homers and a .262 average. It wasn’t as though he was lame duck every time he stepped into the batter’s box.
In the case of this year’s possible heir to the “Machado rookie experience,” Boston has taken the calculated approach in preparing Bogaerts for what his role with the parent club may look like.
A shortstop by trade, Bogaerts was exposed to life at third base at the same time when Will Middlebrooks looked to get back on track while based in Pawtucket. Another sign of coming attractions came three-quarters into Bogaerts’ 10-week PawSox tenure when manager Gary DiSarcina elevated him to the second spot in the lineup.
Reading the tea leaves, the Red Sox were informing Bogaerts that in the event of a call-up, he would not be hitting in the heart of the lineup, nor exclusively play shortstop. By educating Bogaerts of the importance of moving runners along when presented the chance or defensively seeing the ball come off the bat at a different vantage point from shortstop, Boston sought to put the prized prospect in a situation where he could seamlessly blend into new surroundings and not have to worry about doing too much.
“Obviously it worked with Machado. He and (Bogaerts) were the same age when they got called up,” said the same above-referenced scout about how the set of circumstances surrounding Bogaerts parallel similarly to the ones Machado confronted at this time a year ago. “Why would you say, ‘Hey, we need you to come in and hit 15 home runs in the next month-and-a-half and drive in 45 runs?’ Just go out and play your normal game.”
Talking about keeping on open mind while sizing up novices like Bogaerts, the scout pointed out, “It’s the same kid who did the same thing in Double A that got him to Triple A and the same thing in Triple A that got him to the big leagues. With some of these guys, you see them in the big leagues for the first time and they’re doing just the opposite of what they were doing in the minor leagues to get them to the majors in the first place.”
The scout feels that “time will tell” if Bogaerts hits all the appropriate high notes with the Red Sox in the same way Machado did with the O’s. Unlike Machado, Bogaerts could be subjected to sporadic playing time that could fluctuate based on the health and productivity of shortstop Stephen Drew and Middlebrooks.
Like Machado, the parent club views Bogaerts as a piece on a team that is a serious playoff contender. If it did not, the organization would have made a strong push to land Philadelphia’s Michael Young (for example) and kept Bogaerts in Pawtucket until MLB rosters are allowed to expand next month.
Responding to the ever-growing trend of bringing up 20-somethings with very little minor-league service time under their belts, the scout expressed “everything is based on major-league need. Machado was the best defensive option in the system because Baltimore couldn’t get anyone of merit off the waiver wire or make a trade. He was their guy.”
When the dust settles, Boston hopes that Bogaerts takes a page out of Machado’s playbook by becoming the latest 20-year-old to assist a club in securing a playoff berth – the key word being “assist.”
Follow Brendan McGair on Twitter @BWMcGair03