Yes, it’s rarely wise to make bold predictions when writing about baseball, and that’s doubly true when writing about prospects. Yet in a time of sorrow, anger and apathy across Red Sox Nation, it’s nice to have something to look forward to, and Bogaerts is that something.
In fact, he’s not just the Red Sox’ best prospect right now: he’s their most promising minor leaguer since Hanley Ramirez.
The comparison may seem lazy at first: two young, toolsy shortstops, two middle infielders with power potential, two strange but epic first names. Merely listing them together would indeed be too easy, as the two derive their prospect value in very different ways.
But the upside for Bogaerts is what it was for Ramirez: a player who hits in the middle of the order and plays in the middle of the infield, despite the different tools they use to project in such roles. Such players are exceedingly rare, and when they do come along deserve the adoration so often misplaced upon lesser prospects.
We’ll get to their statistical similarities in a moment, but if we’re going to compare and contrast X-Man and Han-Ram, let’s start with the scouting reports.
Bogaerts signed with the Red Sox as a 17-year-old international free agent out of Aruba in 2009 to relatively little fanfare, bursting onto the prospect scene after a 2011 season in which he showed impressive pop as a teenager in Single-A. His best attributes as a prospect are his plus arm, his plus hit tool and, above all else, his plus power. My first hand look at Bogaerts revealed all of these attributes to be very real.
Bogaerts’ bat speed is excellent and he looks at ease at the plate, even against the best competition. When I saw him, he broke up a no-hitter in Portland against Gerrit Cole by driving an opposite field double off the wall in right-center. If you don’t think that’s special, Cole was sitting 97 with a vicious curve that day, and making fellow prospects Jackie Bradley Jr. and Bryce Brentz look absolutely silly with their swings.
Quite simply, Bogaerts was the best offensive player on the field, and everyone in the park knew it.
Ramirez’ scouting history is likely familiar to many Sox fans, but is worthy of a quick summary here. He signed as an international free agent from the Dominican Republic in 2000 as a 16-year-old, and began playing in Rookie Ball in 2002 when he hit age 18. Like Bogaerts, he became recognized as an elite prospect after his third season in the minors, but was known more for his hit tool, speed and defensive promise, with the power projected to come later on.
This isn’t an exact science, but using the traditional 20-80 scouting scale, here’s my best estimation of Bogaerts’ and Ramirez’ tools projections for when they each reached Double-A.
Both considered excellent pure hitters, Bogaerts has the advantage in power and arm strength, while Hanley had the advantage in speed and defense. In addition to the raw tools, we should consider two other important pieces of their prospect profiles. Bogaerts is widely heralded as having plus makeup while Ramirez was infamous for his immaturity. Conversely, Bogaerts has a higher propensity towards strikeouts and more questions about his ability to hit off-speed pitches, while Ramirez was lauded for his pitch recognition.
I reached out to Mike Newman of Fangraphs for this piece, who was one of the first well-known online scouts to give Bogaerts rave reviews. He gave the following take on Bogaerts/Ramirez comparisons:
“For me, the Hanley Ramirez/Xander Bogaerts comparisons are misguided. Ramirez has much more speed and agility. Bogaerts is stronger and may have more potential for power,” Newman said. “About the only two things they have in common is their being right-handed and playing shortstop.”
Overall, we now have a very basic take on their similarities and differences, but one that provides a solid base for us on which to compare their statistics.
First, let’s look at each player’s age 19 season. For Bogaerts, this came in last year at High-A and Double-A, while Ramirez’ stats come in 2003 at Single-A.
|Xander Bogaerts, Age 19, 2012 (A+/AA)|
|Hanley Ramirez, Age 19, 2003 (A)|
If you only consider each prospect’s age, though, this can be a little misleading. Ramirez really took off in 2004 at age 20, and his year was in some ways strikingly similar to Bogaerts’ 2012, as you can see below.
|Xander Bogaerts, Age 19, 2012 (A+/AA)|
|Hanley Ramirez, Age 20, 2004 (Rk/A+/AA)|
The differences we highlighted in the scouting report earlier are clearly reflected in the stats: both can hit, Bogaerts can hit for power and Ramirez can run. They can both get on base, but Bogaerts strikes out significantly more.
That being said, one year may not seem like a huge difference, but it’s important in the prospect world, and my point here is clear: Bogaerts was a more advanced offensive prospect at age 19 than Ramirez was, and it’s not particularly close.
If you’re still skeptical, let’s put Bogaerts’ 2012 season in perspective. He finished 10th in the Carolina League in batting average and homers, 15th in doubles and 12th in OBP, and he did this in just 104 games as the second-youngest position player in the league. He then moved up to Double-A Portland and proceeded to mash there as well, putting up a .326/.351/.598 line with 15 base hits in 23 games as the youngest player in the league. Aside from a high strikeout rate of 19.8% (and a 21:1 K/BB rate in AA), Bogaerts’ 2012 campaign was essentially statistically perfect.
All of this, of course, ignores the giant elephant in the room: Ramirez had plus defensive ability, while many believe Bogaerts will have to move off of the position.
He very well might, but after seeing Bogaerts in person last season, I’m not sure that transition will happen as soon as everyone thinks it might.
Based on the reports I read about Bogaerts, I expected him to have a Jhonny Peralta-esque build or Yuniesky Betancourt-like range, but that wasn’t the case at all. Right now, Bogaerts is lithe and athletic and carries little extra weight. To use everyone’s favorite scouting phrase: he looked good in the uniform.
He wasn’t truly tested in the field when I saw him, but his actions looked fine taking grounders and during the few balls hit to him during play, and he did make one decent ranging play to his right. Bogaerts’ plus arm is obvious, and I have no doubt it could play at third or right field should the move become necessary.
Bogaerts is similar in build to other players who have indeed outgrown the shortstop position, and maybe his family history indicates he’ll add some heft as he ages. Scouts know and see more than I do*, and when as many doubts surface about a position change as have with Bogaerts, they can’t be dismissed by wishful thinking and a single look.
But around the prospect corner of the Interwebs, opinions surrounding Bogaerts’ defense may be changing. In a recent ESPN.com chat, prospect guru Keith Law gave him 50/50 odds of sticking at short. In his preseason Red Sox Top 10 list, Jason Parks of Baseball Prospectus wrote, “it’s possible that he remains at shortstop going forward,” although he predicted a likely move to third base. And in a September write-up of Bogaerts, Minor League Ball’s John Sickles cited “subjective reports noting improved steadiness on defense,” and cited Bogaerts’ decreased error rate as statistical verification of those claims.
As Newman pointed out, even if Bogaerts has to move off of short, he still profiles as an elite prospect.
“Bogaerts has the ability to become a .275/.285 hitter with 30-HR potential, if not more,” he said. “At third base, those numbers would equal elite production in today’s game. In the outfield, it’s not quite as dominant, but still enough to garner All-Star appearances. His staying at shortstop would be ideal, but his value is less-tied to position than prospects like Jurickson Profar and Francisco Lindor. Bogaerts is an offense first guy at whatever position he plays.”
After seeing Bogaerts in person, my argument is less that he won’t move off shortstop ever, but rather that such a move may come later than many originally predicted. He’s still just 20, meaning he shouldn’t reach full physical maturity for another three-to-five years. Given that he’s likely two seasons away from the majors, I think he’s likely to at least break into the show as a shortstop. Bogaerts’ range may limit him from excelling at defense in the middle of the field, but if he can play average or even fringe-average D there, his bat should make him an All-Star early in his career.
You have to view Bogaerts’ prospect profile through the rosiest colored glasses to see that type of impact, sure. But that he has that sort of upside is rare in and of itself, and no one else in the Sox farm system has possessed it since Ramirez was shipped out in the winter of 2005.
Daisuke Matsuzaka perhaps comes closest, as he was technically a prospect in 2007, but that’s a spirit of the law/letter of the law debate. Clay Buchholz and Casey Kelly were prospect darlings coming up throughout the system as well, but projected No. 2 starters don’t come with quite the upside of middle of the order middle infielders. Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury were never thought of as highly as Bogaerts is now. He’s going to be a Top 25 prospect for every major publication this spring, and for a few, he might be Top 10.
“He’s top-20, if not top-10. Bogaerts is easily one of the best players I’ve seen in person,” Newman said. “I’m a true believer in his ability to become a star for Boston.”
Standard caveats about Bogaerts’ development apply here. No prospect is a sure thing, and maybe breaking balls will confound him more than we anticipate. Maybe he will gain enough weight to move off of shortstop sooner rather than later, and some of his luster will wear off with a move to third base or right field. Another 400-or-so at-bats in Double-A should help to answer his offensive question, while only time will reveal to us the answers surrounding his defense.
Bogaerts isn’t a perfect prospect, and he isn’t quite ready yet. You can’t trade him straight up for Giancarlo Stanton, and he’s (probably) not walking through that door in 2013. He is not particularly similar to Hanley Ramirez as a prospect, yet his value could be similar, and I hope I’ve made that distinction clear. (If not, I could end up looking pretty silly.)
But what Bogaerts is is a special talent and a special prospect, and Red Sox fans should appreciate him as such.
After all, it’s a luxury we never truly got to experience with Ramirez.
*A four-sentence explanation of my background, so you know where I’m coming from as a minor league writer: I’m not a scout and I don’t pretend to be, but I do spend an obsessive amount of time reading about and watching videos of prospects. I keep tabs of around 400-500 minor leaguers, and I’ve been doing this for five years now. This is more than a hobby for me, and I’ve learned enough to at least have a broader base of knowledge than the typical fan who (wisely) restricts his or her passion to only the Red Sox or only the major leagues. With that said, put as much or as little into my evaluations as you deem appropriate!