Year one of the Xander Bogaerts era at shortstop is not going as planned.
The Boston Red Sox are just 20-26, five games out of first place in the AL East and in the midst of a seven-game losing streak. Many of their young players are struggling, many of their rotation staples have crashed and burned and most of their offseason acquisitions have been busts. The team's defense and running game—core strengths of the 2013 championship club—have been hard to watch this year.
With that in mind, it's not hard to see why the Red Sox elected to re-sign Stephen Drew for the rest of the 2014 season this past week. He improves the team for 2014 without mortgaging its future. And while it means that Bogaerts' tenure at shortstop is coming to a temporary end, it doesn't have to and shouldn't mean his days at the position are permanently behind him.
Despite some defensive miscues of his own, Bogaerts has been one of the lone bright spots for the 2014 Red Sox. The 21-year-old is hitting .283/.381/.417 through his first 180 plate appearances. His defense at short has been uninspiring at times, but he's been far from a train wreck there, either, and he's shown the ability to make adjustments.
We're spoiled by the age of Mike Trout, but you can't ask for much more from a rookie shortstop.
There's some irony in the fact that it's Bogaerts—one of the team's few solid performers—who's felt the brunt of the Red Sox's desperate attempts to stop the bleeding. But by bringing Drew back into the fold earlier this week, Boston is simply taking a measured approach to stabilizing a team that has more talent than its sub-.500 record would indicate.
That's true even if this approach dictates that Bogaerts move 50 feet to his right on defense once more, manning the hot corner for the majority of Boston's games from here on out.
It's a decision that disappointed many fans and Bogaerts himself.
"My heart is always at shortstop," Bogaerts told Scott Lauber of The Boston Herald Wednesday. "And I was just feeling so good over there. But they made the decision that they have to make."
Such a reaction from the young Aruban is natural.
But those who believe Bogaerts' days at shortstop are forever in the past are missing the point of the Drew signing. The Red Sox did not acquire Drew because they don't think Bogaerts can play shortstop adequately—they acquired Drew because he serves as a relatively cheap option who can improve the team now. And as the first 46 games of the season have shown us, this is very much a team that needs improving.
In reality, the Drew signing is less about Bogaerts than it is about Will Middlebrooks, who's once again failed to solidify himself as an everyday player on a first-division team. After Middlebrooks hit just .197/.305/.324 through 82 plate appearances between two disabled-list stints, the Red Sox were really left with no choice but to try to make an upgrade with more oomph than Brock Holt.
Many Red Sox fans wanted Garin Cecchini to be summoned to the majors, but his defense clearly isn't ready for the big leagues, and his power production has been disappointing thus far. Boston's new favorite prospect, Mookie Betts, lacks the arm strength to play third base and has no professional experience there. And aside from Ryan Roberts, there aren't any other internal options.
What the Drew signing reflects is that there truly weren't many external options for a third base upgrade, either. It's too early for most teams to be in sell mode, but the teams that should already be looking toward 2015 generally lack appealing options at the hot corner. Plus, it makes little sense to cash in trade chips for a third base option when an above-average everyday player such as Drew can be had for just $10 million.
This was the easiest, cheapest and fastest way for the Red Sox to add some life to their team, as Drew will instantly improve their offense and their performance against right-handed pitching: two areas of the club in dire need of improvement.
And let's put to bed the notion that Drew should play third base so that Bogaerts has shortstop all to himself. You don't acquire one of the league's better defenders at a premier position and move him away from his strengths just to avoid hurting the feelings of a prospect.
Plus, even amid all this fuss, there's a good possibility that Bogaerts sees some more time at shortstop this year. Both Middlebrooks and Drew have dramatic platoon splits, which means we could see WMB at the hot corner and Bogaerts at shortstop against lefties once Middlebrooks recovers.
So Boston's plan at short is fairly set in stone for 2014, but what about for the future? Many assume or hope that Bogaerts' move to third base will be permanent, but that doesn't need to be the case.
It may be unconventional to move Bogaerts from third base to shortstop once again, but that doesn't mean it's a bad idea. Bogaerts has nearly 2,000 professional innings at shortstop, and he's not going to forget how to play the position just because he's being asked to make 80 starts at the hot corner this year.
He's not a finished product at short, but he's shown us enough this season to make me believe he can be a shortstop for several years moving forward.
The Baltimore Orioles will face a similar scenario with Manny Machado this offseason, as J.J. Hardy is an impending free agent. Other than the argument that defensive shifting leads to offensive struggles—an argument based far more in narrative than anything quantifiable—there's little reason not to move Bogaerts and Machado to their natural homes.
It's not a player-development path we're accustomed to seeing, but Bogaerts and Machado are not normal talents.
Finally, if you project out the Red Sox's long-term roster, playing Bogaerts at shortstop is really the only way to get all of the team's premium talent on the field at once. A 2015 lineup with Bogaerts at short, Cecchini at third, Betts in left field and Jackie Bradley Jr. in center field is quite plausible, and that's a quartet that could post a collective OBP of .360 or better.
If you move Bogaerts to third base long term, the picture becomes much more muddled. Cecchini must then move to first base, which is a horrible profile for him, or to left field. If Cecchini moves to left, where do you play Betts? And if you commit to Betts and put him in center, does that mean you've already given up on the defensive talents of Bradley?
In essence, keeping Bogaerts at shortstop only blocks Deven Marrero—a decent prospect, but not someone who projects as a first-division starter. Moving Bogaerts to third for 2015 and beyond will block one of Cecchini, Betts or Bradley. One would assume that's not something Boston wants to do.
Red Sox fans have been clamoring for a true heir apparent to Nomar Garciaparra for a decade now, so it's understandable to feel some frustration at the thought of Bogaerts being denied the chance to take those reins. But in re-signing Drew for 2014, the Red Sox have significantly improved their team on the field without at all mortgaging their future.
Any time an organization can accomplish both of those goals at once, it must do so.
We may have seen the end of Bogaerts as an everyday shortstop for now, but aside from arguments based in tradition, there's no reason to think we can't see him there again in 2015 and beyond.
Xander Bogaerts wants to be a shortstop, and the Red Sox don't have to deny him that wish on a permanent basis just yet.
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