It’s not designed to be a riddle, but it has become one for Xander Bogaerts and the Red Sox. Can you be the shortstop of the future if you don’t play any shortstop?
Forget Confucian queries, the Red Sox’ handling of Bogaerts is plain confusing. They keep saying he can play shortstop and keep not playing him there.
Bogaerts, who was limited to pinch running Sunday because of an illness, was back in the lineup Monday night against the Minnesota Twins at third base. The Sox might as well handcuff him to the hot corner. It’s the only position he has played since Stephen Drew returned to the majors on June 2.
After spending spring training endorsing Bogaerts and assuring him he was their shortstop, then having manager John Farrell convey after the Drew signing that Bogaerts would still see time at short against lefties, the Red Sox have committed to playing their prized prospect solely at third base — for now.
I’m not here to rail against the Drew signing. Bogaerts ended up being the collateral damage of Will Middlebrooks’s injury and futility. But when Drew missed six games with an (obligatory) oblique injury, the Sox had utilityman/switch-hitter Jonathan Herrera man shortstop, not Bogaerts. That seems counterintuitive and counterproductive if the goal is to determine whether the young Aruban is the next Nomar.
The Red Sox’ rationale is that they don’t want to shuttle Bogaerts back and forth, but that’s exactly what they did last season, toggling him between third and short. It’s what they’ve done with Brock Holt, who has displayed enough position flexibility to be a politician.
If the Sox are stuck in quicksand this season, it would at least be nice to figure out once and for all whether Bogaerts can play shortstop.
On the days Drew is not in the lineup, Bogaerts should reacquaint himself with a position that the 21-year-old has said his heart will always belong to.
Farrell said Monday that Bogaerts could see some time at short this season, but attached qualifiers.
“It’s a possibility, yes,” said Farrell. “That would mean a righthanded-hitting left-side infielder. Could that be Will Middlebrooks? Absolutely it could be. In certain alignments against a lefthanded pitcher we could have a Middlebrooks-Bogaerts left side of the infield.”
Bogaerts, who chose No. 2 because he grew up idolizing Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, said he stills seems himself as a shortstop.
“That’s pretty much where I played my whole minor league career, so I guess that’s a yes,” said Bogaerts, who has played 54 games at shortstop this season, committing six of his eight errors there. “I’m trying to help the team in whatever way I can, so I’m just trying to focus a bit more on third base.”
A skeptic would say that the Sox have determined Bogaerts’s future is not in the valuable swath of territory between second and third. General manager Ben Cherington said that’s not a decision he has made.
“I said two weeks ago, and I’ll say it again, the decision to sign Stephen Drew was not reflective of any belief that Xander can’t play short,” said Cherington. “If moving forward there is an opportunity that makes sense for the team, we’re confident he can do it. We’re trying to win games, and we’re trying to create the deepest, most complete roster that we can.
“We felt Stephen was one step closer to that . . . With a record of 31-38, it’s hard to get past today and winning. Who knows what happens six days, six months, six years from now. We believed in the offseason, and we believe today that Xander could play short.”
Cherington pointed out that other highly touted young players have been moved around early in their careers.
“What we’ve always said is, we think this guy will be a really good player for us for a long time, and we think he can play shortstop,” said Cherington. “I don’t remember using the phrase ‘Shortstop of the Future.’ He can play shortstop. He is a good player for us, and we’ll see where he ends up.
“Xander is going to be an important part of this team for a long time, and just as many other good young players have, he is being asked to play another position for the needs of the team. Manny Machado gets moved to third base to address the needs of the team in Baltimore and stays there. Mike Trout moves to the corner outfield spots and goes back to center. Right now, Xander is playing third, and that’s where the need is.”
The Red Sox have a responsibility not to bail too soon on this season. The second wild card is a siren song urging them to trudge forward, despite entering Monday’s game with the second-worst record in American League.
Yet, they also have a responsibility to figure out whether Bogaerts can end the merry-go-round at shortstop.
Otherwise, the Red Sox will find themselves in a logic loop, going around and around only to end up right back where they started — trying to find out whether Bogaerts and his precocious bat are a liability or a luxury at shortstop.
The sample size wasn’t large enough to give Bogaerts anything other than an incomplete grade at short. However, advanced defensive metrics say he still has some ground to cover to be a viable option there.
According to fangraphs.com, Bogaerts has cost the Red Sox seven runs over an average shortstop this season. Entering Monday that ranked 26th out of 28 qualifying shortstops. Former Sox player Jed Lowrie was a minus-3.
But in ultimate zone rating (UZR), Bogaerts fared better, ranking 18th (negative-1.7), just behind Jeter. The Sox don’t use UZR. They have their own defensive measurement, but it tends to deliver the same general message as UZR.
So, does Bogaerts think he can be the shortstop of the future if he doesn’t play any shortstop?
“Why not?” he asked.
Because last I checked, you can’t be a shortstop if you don’t play shortstop.