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ON BASEBALL

The Dodgers decided Alex Verdugo wouldn’t be a cornerstone. But 2020 proved he may just work out for the Red Sox

While some in the majors have struggled to maintain their intensity without fans in the stands, Alex Verdugo has delivered on all the promise that got him to the major leagues with the Dodgers at 21 in 2017.
While some in the majors have struggled to maintain their intensity without fans in the stands, Alex Verdugo has delivered on all the promise that got him to the major leagues with the Dodgers at 21 in 2017.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

On a team that spent most of the year in a last-place fog of hopelessness, Alex Verdugo offered an element of clarity as the Red Sox attempted to move forward into a new era of contention. While he wasn’t the equal of an in-his-prime Mookie Betts — who, aside from Mike Trout, is? — the 24-year-old lived up to his reputation as a gifted player capable of impacting the game in numerous ways.

Verdugo entered Thursday ranked in the top five in the American League in average (.328, 4th), on-base (.383, 5th), and Wins Above Replacement (2.4 in the calculations of Baseball-Reference.com, 3rd).

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“As high as our expectations were, as highly as we obviously valued him, I don’t think anyone could have expected that he would come in and perform as well as he has,” said Red Sox chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom. “This is more than we had a right to expect.”

Beyond the numbers, he’s played with dirt-covered passion.

“He plays hard. He prepares hard. He’s emotional. He’s got energy,” said Sox manager Ron Roenicke. “He’s got all the things you like in a ballplayer and [he] loves to get out there and get dirty.”

Verdugo’s actual performance, in some ways, runs counter to the skepticism that greeted his acquisition in February. No one doubted his talent. He’d rocketed through the Dodgers farm system and reached the big leagues as a 21-year-old in 2017. In 2019, he’d cemented himself as a very good big league outfielder, hitting .294/.342/.475 for the Dodgers in 106 games.

“At the end of the day, it’s really hard to overlook how impressive a baseball player he is,” one National League talent evaluator said after last season. “He has a chance to be an All-Star for a number of years.”

Others were more measured in their assessments, but based on ability alone, a survey of more than a dozen evaluators offered a general consensus that Verdugo’s skill set was at least that of an above-average everyday player on a championship team.

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Yet for all that talent, there were questions. Foremost among them, why had the Dodgers seemed so open to trading him?

Alex Verdugo played parts of three seasons with the Dodgers from 2017-19, but never truly established himself as a regular in their crowded outfield.
Alex Verdugo played parts of three seasons with the Dodgers from 2017-19, but never truly established himself as a regular in their crowded outfield. Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

Even for a talent like Betts, the Dodgers had established clear limits — particularly given the outfielder, at the time when they made the deal, was just one year from free agency. The Dodgers have become the gold standard for a sustainable, championship-caliber team in part because they cling ferociously to their best young talents.

Yet LA, according to several major league sources, had dangled Verdugo for years, even in trade conversations within their own division. Though they didn’t appear to be desperate to deal him, many felt that the Dodgers nonetheless were looking for the right time and price to move Verdugo, rather than considering him a long-term cornerstone.

Interest from other teams was capped for a number of reasons. Some worried about the long-term health of Verdugo, whose 2019 campaign ended due to a stress fracture in his lower back.

‘“As high as our expectations were, as highly as we obviously valued him, I don’t think anyone could have expected that he would come in and perform as well as he has. ... This is more than we had a right to expect.”’

Chaim Bloom on Alex Verdugo

Others harbored concerns about his work ethic and routine, wondering if he would do everything in his power to stay on the field and reach his peak. Some questioned whether a player who’d frustrated some of his coaches and teammates in the minors was coachable. At least one team stopped considering the possibility of a deal due to the outfielder’s proximity to an alleged sexual assault of a minor by a minor league teammate — it was investigated by the police, but never resulted in charges.

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(Verdugo, listed only as “Alex” in the police report, was identified as an investigative lead, but not as a witness or suspect. He’s denied knowledge of the alleged crimes.)

Before the trade, the Red Sox did what they considered extensive due diligence related to both on- and off-field concerns. According to major league sources, that included conversations with top-ranking MLB officials and the league’s director of investigations about its findings related to the alleged sexual assault.

The team reached the determination, as Bloom said in February, that there wasn’t anything “disqualifying” in Verdugo’s past that would prevent the team from acquiring him. As for more general questions regarding maturity and conditioning routines, the Sox believed that Verdugo’s past reputation need not dictate his future path.

“Everybody comes from a different background, is wired a little bit differently, but we have to remember that at the ages these guys are at, just because they’re in these incredibly visible and high-profile situations, just because their athleticism is phenomenal, it doesn’t mean they’re finished products as human beings,” said Bloom. "Our responsibility is to provide them with that atmosphere — the mentorship and the guidance — that it’s going to take them to become the best version of themselves.

“This organization has been able to do that time and again with a lot of different people. When you have the passion and enthusiasm that Alex does, we’re more than willing to bet on someone like that to reach his full potential.”

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Alex Verdugo worked diligently in Fort Myers through the spring and the MLB delay, ultimately getting himself healthy enough to play  for the opening of the shortened season.
Alex Verdugo worked diligently in Fort Myers through the spring and the MLB delay, ultimately getting himself healthy enough to play for the opening of the shortened season.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

The Sox made that bet, and based on 2020, feel Verdugo validated their faith under extraordinary circumstances.

The COVID-19 shutdown left players on their own to an almost unprecedented degree from March through the end of June. Verdugo remained in Fort Myers and rehabbed diligently, to position himself to be ready when the Red Sox reconvened in Boston at the start of July.

“For me, going through the COVID, going through the no fans, coming from an injury, I had to learn a lot about myself, my body, what it takes to be healthy every day, what it takes to play at the level I play at,” said Verdugo.

When the season started, Verdugo started slowly, initially appearing tentative — particularly in the batter’s box. With hindsight, it appears that he was simply shedding the rust of nearly a full calendar year without participating in big-league games.

Alex Verdugo takes a lead off first base Thursday night at Fenway.
Alex Verdugo takes a lead off first base Thursday night at Fenway.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

On the morning of Aug. 4 — the one-year anniversary of his last game of the 2019 season — Verdugo was hitting just .231/.286/.231, spraying groundballs and making little impact on contact through his team’s first 10 games. But with a 1-for-2 performance that day, he started a surge that never really stopped, hitting .344/.399/.552 his next 42 games.

His passion for the game and love of competition are obvious. Even in the absence of fans — something that has resulted in diminished intensity from some players — and even while coming back from injury.

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“I give it everything I got. I just play hard and let everything else sort itself out,” said Verdugo. “I don’t want to sit back and say, ‘What if I did this? What if I ran harder?’ I play hard and whatever happens, happens.”

For all that he accomplished with the Sox in his transition of 2020, Verdugo nonetheless believes he’s capable of more. Because he spent the 2019–20 offseason rehabbing his back injury, he ended up playing this season with less strength, and about 10 pounds lighter than he would after a normal offseason buildup. He won’t face such restrictions as he prepares for 2021.

“I’m happy with the season that I’ve had, I am. But the competitor in me wants more,” said Verdugo. “This year I feel good. I felt like I showed off a lot of the tools that I have and like, ‘Hey, I can do this, this, and this.’ . . . Now, next year, I want to be stronger, be even more healthy, and be able to do it every single day for 162.”

The Red Sox believe that such an outlook — atop what was already an extremely impressive performance in 2020 — offers a view of a potential cornerstone moving forward. As the team works through a roster overhaul meant to navigate from the last championship-caliber group to the next one, it sees Verdugo as a central part of that effort.

“I don’t think he could have done anything else to make us feel better about his place within that core,” said Bloom. “He belongs at this level. Even more than that, he’s not afraid of the spotlight that comes with being that type of player in a city and region that cares about baseball as much as this one does. He just seems to feed off of that. He’s the type of guy that, you watch him on a daily basis, and you say, ‘I can’t wait for fans to be back in this building because they’re going to love watching him play.’ ”


Alex Speier can be reached at alex.speier@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @alexspeier.