FORT MYERS, Fla. — Andrew Benintendi isn’t the only player who represented a deal-breaker in the Red Sox’ trade discussions about lefthander Chris Sale. While the Red Sox wanted to preserve their young big league positional core, they also slammed on the brakes when the White Sox sought minor league third baseman Rafael Devers.
The deal came to fruition only when the White Sox stopped asking for Devers and instead rounded out their four-player prospect package that already featured Yoan Moncada and Michael Kopech with outfielder Luis Alexander Basabe and righthander Luis Diaz.
Apprised of the fact that the Red Sox were willing to walk away from a deal for Sale because of him, Devers’s eyes widened.
“I feel good that they’re giving me the chance to play, first of all, in big league camp this spring training, but they’re also telling me with that move that if I work hard in the minor leagues, that with the grace of God, maybe I’ll be brought up one day to play for this organization,” Devers said through translator Daveson Perez.
The Red Sox have long seemed to anticipate just such a development.
‘Did that kid just do that?’
In 2013, when Devers was a 16-year-old international amateur free agent in the Dominican Republic, it took little time for him to distinguish himself. The field at the Red Sox’ Dominican academy is roughly 330 feet down the lines, and the air, in the words of assistant general manager Eddie Romero, is “heavy, dank,” with trees beyond the left-field fence that fend off any potential jet streams.
Righthanded big league hitters have sometimes struggled to pull pitches over the fence at the academy. Thus, what the lefthanded-hitting Devers did at a workout in front of Sox officials (including Romero) proved memorable.
“He always hit,” said Romero. “He had power. He had great bat speed. He barreled everything up. One of the first tryouts that we saw, he looped a line drive around the left-field foul pole at our facility at the academy. That was just, ‘Holy . . . Did that kid just do that?’ ”
Devers’s ability to drive the ball to all fields stood out in the international amateur class of 2013, though some teams questioned whether he profiled as a first baseman or a third baseman. Relative to other 16-year-olds, his build appeared stocky, with broad hips that led some evaluators to conclude that he looked more like a first baseman.
Romero and the Red Sox, however, were more optimistic about his potential to stay at the more valuable position of third base — a determination that played a role in the Red Sox’ willingness to confer upon Devers a $1.5 million signing bonus in July 2013.
“I had faith in his ability to stick at third, based on the way his feet worked,” said Romero. “He’s always been a strong, stocky kid, but his feet always moved lighter than they would appear.
“He had good footwork. He had good fundamentals in terms of squaring up to the ball and his hands. He had good hands. And he’s always had an above-average arm.
“So I thought those attributes, if he was able to stay physically strong without losing that flexibility and that versatility that he had to give him range to go side to side — and he hasn’t.”
Glass half-full in 2016
To date, Devers has exceeded the projections of nearly everyone in terms of his defense. As a 19-year-old, he made a considerable leap forward with his glove in 2016, showing the potential for above-average range thanks to a quick first step and strong instincts, and a strong arm and sound fundamentals.
That steady, yearlong progress was all the more impressive given the backdrop against which it occurred. While some struggles seemed reasonable to expect for one of the youngest position players in the High A Carolina League, Devers was saddled with a .195/.273/.310 line through the end of May.
At the start of the year, he stood next to Salem teammates Benintendi and Moncada to form the most heralded prospect trio in the game. While those other two excelled in the season’s early paces, Devers fell behind offensively.
“When I saw him early, he was struggling at that point,” said Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski, who visited Salem in late April. “It was obvious he was trying to pull the ball a little bit too much, which, a young kid doing that, jumping up and being a really young player in that league, was not unanticipated.
“In my own mind, I thought of a guy who goes back a long time, a guy like Harold Baines, who I remember when he went to A ball was hitting about .150 on May 15 and at the end of the year, he ended up hitting close to .300, and then the next year he went to Double A and he did the same thing.
“I looked at Devers and you just . . . he’s a very talented individual. You could see that he would snap out of it, and he did. He just became more relaxed and more comfortable as time went on. He can hit. He not only can hit, he’s a good player. He’s young but he’s a good player.”
Devers, who had been a standout in the Dominican Summer League and rookie-level Gulf Coast League in 2014 and then more than held his own in Single A Greenville in 2015, remained unshaken by his poor numbers, believing they reflected in part some poor luck. The worm, he figured, would turn.
It did. From June 1 through the end of the season, he posted a .328/.369/.514 line, showcasing his ability to drive the ball to all fields. By the end of the year, he owned a .282/.335/.443 line with 11 homers, and he had 18 steals in 24 attempts, an indication of his agility and feel for the game.
All of those marks were above league average in the Carolina League. The fact that he produced them as a 19-year-old — roughly 18 months younger than Moncada, and more than two years younger than Benintendi — made them even more noteworthy. Balls that he drives seem to have an extra gear, in a way that suggests his extra-base hits (51 in 2016) could turn into middle-of-the-order power down the road.
“The ball is just electric when it comes off his bat,” said righthander Jamie Callahan, who played with Devers in Salem last year. “It’s something you’re not used to seeing out of a 19-year-old kid at any level.
“He’s a phenomenal player. For him to be able to turn his season around like he did, just to stay positive through it all at 19, go through those struggles early on and turn it on at the end, it was really phenomenal to watch.
“That’s just rare talent. He’s one of a kind, what can I say? Phenomenal defense, he’s got a great bat, and he’s only going to get better.”
“He’s improving,” added Romero. “He’s figuring out what pitches to lay off of, what to do damage with, how to work a count, how he’s being attacked. It’s the natural progression and maturity of a young offensive player.”
Here comes the spotlight
At 20, Devers is the youngest Red Sox player in big league camp since Xander Bogaerts in 2013. With Benintendi soon to graduate from prospect status and both Moncada and Kopech gone, Devers will be the Red Sox’ top minor league prospect at the start of the year, and he’ll be playing in New England for the first time.
He’s slated to open in Double A Portland. While he’s not expected to emerge as a significant big league contributor until at least 2018, the fact that he’s a nonroster invitee mingling with established major league stars underscores that he’s a meaningful part of the Red Sox’ future.
That the Red Sox drew the line on his inclusion in the Sale deal — seemingly an acknowledgment that he projects as their third baseman of the future — further underscores the point.
With that comes a growing spotlight. The Red Sox are doing what they can to get Devers, a consensus top-20 prospect, ready.
“Just kind of getting him here to get comfortable, get acclimated to the big league atmosphere, having all the cameras and the media around, getting him a little bit of exposure to that, that’s a primary reason [for having him in big league camp],” said Romero.
“In addition to that, he’s earned it. He’s obviously one of our better prospects. He’s worked his tail off. He’s come into this spring, he looks good. Hopefully he goes in there and he can swing the bat and show what he can do.”
Before his reassignment to minor league camp, there is an opportunity for Devers to give a glimpse of what might lie ahead. At 20, he has arrived at a new chapter of possibility. He wants to take advantage of it — both by learning from more experienced teammates and by showcasing his abilities.
“I’m really excited to be here, just because I’ve only played with veterans that have played in the big leagues in the winter leagues or a few games here and there,” said Devers. “To be here, it’s very exciting. It’s emotional.”
Video: Rafael Devers taking batting practice
(Video by Peter Abraham/Globe staff)
Follow Alex Speier on Twitter at @alexspeier.