Note: During the MLB shutdown, the Globe will revisit its offseason "Around the Horn” series of position-by-position looks at the Red Sox to update with what we learned in spring training. Today: Shortstop
Once Xander Bogaerts finally set foot in the batter’s box during a spring training game this year, he looked a bit off.
The Red Sox shortstop had been dealing with left ankle soreness for the majority of spring. Rust was expected, and it was evident in his at-bats. The swing was slow. The timing too.
Bogaerts struck out seven times in 13 at-bats, but of course you’d be a fool to judge him on that. He’s too good of a player.
What was true before spring training is still true: Bogaerts is the glue to this Red Sox team.
When former manager Alex Cora took over the Sox at the start of 2018, he wanted Bogaerts to focus more on hitting for power. Cora would take a .280 or .290 batting average if it came with more home runs.
To that point in his career, Bogaerts had never hit more than 21 homers in a season, but he had had three straight seasons of 30-plus doubles, which often is an indicator that there’s more power in the tank, especially for younger players whose bodies are still developing.
In 2018, Bogaerts increased his totals to 45 doubles and 23 homers. In 2019, though, he turned into the player Cora expected, and then some: Bogaerts hit 52 doubles and 33 homers while maintaining a .309 batting average.
Of course, when and if the season resumes, Cora won’t be around for Bogaerts.
“That’s going to be tough,” Bogaerts said. “The first day he was our manager, a lot of guys fell in love with him, and, obviously, we knew how smart he was prior to coming to us. A lot of familiarity with him here.”
Bogaerts said that his leadership role, which he stepped into at the beginning of the year, is different. Sure, Mitch Moreland is a veteran presence, but Bogaerts is a star and plays every day at an important position. That means something.
“Because of the confidence, because of the success that leads to the confidence, he’s starting to be a leader in that clubhouse,” interim manager Ron Roenicke said. “His attitude, the way he walks in every day, makes a big difference. He’s just always in a good mood, and he works. That’s important for us as a staff."
Bogaerts will hit in the 3-hole, as he did last year, when he and Rafael Devers formed one of the game’s best 1-2 punches. But he’s also a versatile piece that could be moved around if need be.
Bogaerts and Devers bring balance and stability to the order with a contact approach that still breeds power.
“When I talk about a deep lineup, he helps push that to where it’s tough to get through all nine,” Roenicke said. “Whether I put him at third or fourth — I know he likes fifth also — that’s a tough five guys to get through.
"He’s become a real consistent offensive threat, not just in homers, but average, driving in runs. That allows us to put him pretty much anywhere in the lineup.”
Without Mookie Betts in the lineup, the presence of Bogaerts becomes even more important. But Bogaerts doesn’t want that to weigh on his teammates or him.
“Knowing that we traded away Mookie, that might put some pressure on us to go out and do more,” Bogaerts said. “I think we should be a little careful with that. We just don’t want to put pressure on ourselves and get in a big hole just because we want to fill someone’s shoes like Mookie’s.”
In the field, this will be an important season for Bogaerts. As good as he was at the plate last season, he lacked some range, particularly on balls up the middle.
“For how sure-handed he is, I think his first step could be better,” Cora said.
Bogaerts will have to improve that part of his game without Cora and attempt to replicate — or even improve on — his 2019 production at the plate without both Betts and Cora.
Asked about building on his 2019 campaign, Bogaerts said, "Whew! Hey, it’s not going to be easy.”
Primary 2019 starter: Xander Bogaerts
Projected 2020 starter: Bogaerts
Major league depth: Jose Peraza
Prospect to watch: Jeter Downs