Other than to trained eyes, the dozens of minor league players at spring training are distinguishable only by the numbers on their backs. But Xander Bogaerts, even at the age of 17, was impossible to miss.
Former Red Sox international scouting director Craig Shipley corralled some of his fellow executives in 2010, telling them to come watch Bogaerts take batting practice.
“We sign a lot of players and you wait and see what happens,” assistant general manager Mike Hazen said. “It’s hard to get too excited sometimes because you know what the odds are. But Xander, he was hitting the ball over the place. It was incredible to watch.”
Bogaerts wasn’t just another young dreamer. He was part of the future.
“People were talking about him in the organization before he signed,” said general manager Ben Cherington. “I really don’t remember not hearing about him. It’s been like that from the start.”
Now 21, Bogaerts could become to the Red Sox what players like Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, and Manny Machado are to their teams — a young star who can be built around for years to come.
Bogaerts was the youngest player to play in the World Series since 20-year-old Miguel Cabrera in 2003. Outside of 19-year-old lefthander Ken Brett, who appeared in two games in 1967, Bogaerts is the youngest player in Red Sox history to appear in the Series.
He hit .238 in the six games against the Cardinals (.296 for the postseason) and played well at third base, a position he had learned only a few months earlier. The Red Sox didn’t hesitate to put Bogaerts in the spotlight. It seemed like a natural progression.
“He was ready,” Cherington said. “He has a natural, simple swing without much wasted effort. Hitting is a hard thing to do, but he doesn’t try to make it harder than it has to be. His offensive gifts and instincts were kind of there in the beginning and defensively he’s worked really hard.”
The Jeter model
Bogaerts is often compared to Hanley Ramirez, the tall and talented shortstop the Red Sox signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2000 and later traded to the Miami Marlins. But Bogaerts grew up wanting to emulate Derek Jeter, and this season he will wear No. 2 as a sign of how much he respects the Yankees captain.
“I thought Derek was amazing when I watched games on television,” Bogaerts said. “That was who I wanted to be. I like the way he plays and the way he handles himself.”
Like Jeter, Bogaerts brings offensive production to a premium defensive position and plays with the kind of calm that impresses veteran teammates. No occasion overwhelms him.
Like Jeter, Bogaerts also has been challenged by learning to play shortstop.
“It’s such a process because it’s such a demanding position,” said Sox infield coach Brian Butterfield. “I’m pleased where he’s at, but there’s a long way to go.”
Jeter committed 56 errors in 1993 as a Single A shortstop. Butterfield was one of the coaches who helped guide him to the majors. Now Butterfield has a new project.
“Bogie has a lot of similarities to Derek,” said the coach. “They’re both athletic, they both have body control, and they both have arm strength. They have aptitude and they want to learn.
“I have every confidence he’s going to be fine there. When they called and asked me this winter if I thought he could do it, I was positive he could.”
Ramirez was more athletic — and sensational, in certain moments — at the same age. Bogaerts is more consistent and disciplined. Teams have hoped they could rely on Ramirez, who has been traded twice in his career. The Red Sox know they can with Bogaerts.
“There’s a genuineness about him,” said Sox manager John Farrell. “Every player in camp wants to see him do well, and that speaks volumes to me because it’s rare. Let’s face it, in this world there’s a lot jealousy.”
Red Sox minor league director Ben Crockett, international scouting director Eddie Romero, and Hazen all said the same thing about Bogaerts: He asks good questions.
“We obviously believe in him and we believe in his talents,” said Hazen. “But he also has a passion for the game.”
Celebrity yet humility
The toughest part for Bogaerts has been getting used to the attention off the field.
“The whole world was watching the Series and it felt like the whole world was getting to know me,” he said. “The fame part, it’s new. People know you and you haven’t even met them.
“I went back home and all these people wanted to know me. I don’t like it. I like to be quiet and at peace. It was hard to deal with at the beginning.”
The prime minister of Aruba, Mike Eman, was at the airport when Bogaerts arrived home following the World Series parade in Boston. Relatives gone for decades returned to the island to see him.
A ballpark in Aruba was renamed for Bogaerts and his presence was requested at numerous events. He learned to carry a pen to handle the autograph requests. Spring training was almost a relief.
“The coaches and the manager, they’re doing a good job of looking after me and helping me out,” said Bogaerts. “They’ve been around the game. They know what’s next for me, what’s coming up.
“I try to be careful. I speak four languages, so I guess I’m pretty smart. When I make decisions, I know you can’t please everyone.”
Said Farrell, “This is somebody who would be a junior in college. He’s a smart guy, he’s got tremendous aptitude, and there’s a genuine humbleness about him. He’s all about one thing and that’s playing the game.”
Being well-grounded helps. His mother, a social worker, was a single parent to three children after a divorce. Xander rarely hears from his father, Jan.
With the help of her family, Sandra Brown raised adventurous and ambitious children. Chandra, now 29, was a model in Hong Kong before getting married. Jair lasted only three seasons in pro ball but is now pursuing a career as an agent.
“My mom, she has been everything for me,” said Xander. “She is the one who has always been there. She was there when I was nothing.”
Bogaerts arrived at spring training knowing the Red Sox had a place for him. But many afternoons were spent sitting at one of the picnic tables outside the utilitarian minor league clubhouse visiting with friends and former teammates.
On the big league side, he asked those good questions.
“He handles himself the right way; he wants to learn,” said second baseman Dustin Pedroia. “He seemed like he had been in that situation before when we were in the Series, which is pretty amazing.
“He’s going to be great. He has unbelievable ability. It’s just a matter of doing it consistently.”
Bogaerts has learned more about baseball history and the many Hall of Famers and All-Stars who never won a World Series. He understands that the events of last fall are to be savored.
“I’m lucky to be in this position, I know that,” he said. “It felt like a once-in-a-lifetime thing when it happened. But I’m already looking forward to doing it again. I’m ready for this.”Peter Abraham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @PeteAbe.