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ALEX SPEIER

The timing could be right for Rafael Devers to have a breakout season

After a disappointing 2018 in which he battled through injuries, 22-year-old Rafael Devers could be on the verge of a breakout in 2019.
After a disappointing 2018 in which he battled through injuries, 22-year-old Rafael Devers could be on the verge of a breakout in 2019.(Jim Davis/Globe Staff)

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FORT MYERS, Fla. — At 22 years old, Rafael Devers — born in October of 1996 — is still the youngest position player at Red Sox spring training, a player whose familiar beaming countenance serves as a reminder of his youth. Yet in his baseball trajectory, he appears to be arriving at a point of maturity, a development that looms large for the 2019 team.

In a season in which nearly every member of the Sox seemed to perform at something close to his peak, Devers was the exception. After his outstanding 2017 debut in which he quickly established himself as a middle-of-the-order force, Devers endured some humbling lessons in 2018 while posting a .240 average, .298 OBP, and .433 slugging mark. He did blast 21 homers — a rare total for a 21-year-old — but the overall impression was of a player who had yet to make sense of the big leagues and how to make the consistent adjustments to excel against the highest level of competition.

But late in the year, Devers started to challenge that view. After he landed on the disabled list in mid-August for a recurring hamstring injury, the Red Sox sent him on a prolonged rehab assignment to Triple A Pawtucket (six games) rather than rush him back to the big leagues on Sept. 1 when rosters expanded. When Devers rejoined the big club, his at-bats proved more mature.

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He hit .260/.327/.600 with five homers in his final 55 plate appearances of September, a prelude to an October in which he delivered some huge hits — among them, a three-run, opposite-field blast off Justin Verlander in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series against the Astros, and a go-ahead, pinch-hit single in the ninth inning of Game 4 of the World Series against the Dodgers.

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“The player we envisioned throughout the season, we saw it in September and October,” said manager Alex Cora. “When he went on that rehab assignment, either he missed the big leagues or decided to make an adjustment.”

That development could position Devers to follow an interesting pattern that has prevailed with several current Red Sox players in the early stages of their careers. Devers has now survived his first full year in the big leagues and has arrived at the start of his second full year — one in which many have taken their careers to new heights.

Dustin Pedroia went from a struggling call-up in 2006 to Rookie of the Year in 2007 to MVP in 2008. Xander Bogaerts won a World Series in his 2013 debut, endured a merciless struggle through much of 2014, then returned in 2015 to win a Silver Slugger. Mookie Betts went from an above-average regular in his first full big league season (2015) to AL MVP runner-up in his second full year. Andrew Benintendi was better in his second full season last year than he was in 2017.

PlayerCallup plus Year OneYear Two
Dustin Pedroia2006-07: 679 PAs, .299/.363/.4222008: 726 PAs, .326/.376/.493
Xander Bogaerts2013-14: 644 PAs, .241/.299/.3632015: 654 PAs, .320/.355/.421
Mookie Betts2014-15: 867 PAs, .291/.348/.4712016: 730 PAs, .318/.363/.534
Jackie Bradley Jr.2013-14: 530 PAs, .196/.268/.2802015: 255 PAs, .249/.335/.498
Andrew Benintendi2016-17: 776 PAs, .274/.353/.4322018: 661 PAs, .290/.366/.465
Source: Baseball- Reference.com

It is almost inevitable that players are jolted at some point by the transition to the big leagues. That experience, however, can represent a valuable building block, and by all accounts, Devers has come out on the other side of his struggles to a point where he can progress as a player. As much as Devers looked different on the field after his return from Pawtucket, members of the organization suggest that his transformation behind the scenes is what has laid the groundwork for a potential breakout year. Assistant hitting coach Andy Bark

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ett said that early last season, he felt like he needed “to babysit” Devers, to make sure that he was following the right routines and concepts. There was never a lack of willingness to work, but Devers didn’t always understand the purpose behind the work.

Now, Devers is far more advanced, to the point where Barkett feels he can trust the 22-year-old to get his work done, even if he’s not beside him at each step of the day. As a result, Barkett sees a player ready to emerge as a major league force.

“He came back [from Pawtucket] a different human being. His work ethic — not that he wasn’t a hard worker before — but his work was better, cleaner, more productive. It wasn’t mindless reps. It was trying to get better, taking swings that are getting you somewhere. And then it started translating into games,” said Barkett. “This cat, I feel like, is going to have a great year because of what I see with where he is right now, not necessarily because it’s his second year in the big leagues.

“You can make those arguments, and I’m sure you can make arguments with a lot of guys who didn’t have great second years in the big leagues. I think it’s because of where he is in his journey right now and what he’s capable of doing, which are some special things. I think where he’s at right now is a tremendous spot to show the world what kind of hitter he is.”

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Devers seems driven to do just that. Cora visited him twice during the winter — once during a clinic in which Devers took part in Puerto Rico, once in the Dominican Republic — and both times, emerged thinking that the player who was seen in the final weeks of 2018 isn’t going to disappear.

Devers, by his own account (as translated by Daveson Perez), “got after it” this offseason, improving his nutrition and conditioning both in hopes of avoiding the injuries that impeded his 2018 season and to offer a clearer glimpse of who he intends to be on the field. For the Sox, the early signs of spring from a 22-year-old who is no longer at the infancy of his big league career are noteworthy.

“He’s 22,” said Cora. “He looks great. He’s been working hard . . . He’s on a mission. If this kid clicks the way [Miguel] Andujar did with the Yankees, we’re that [much] better offensively.”

Rafael Devers talks with Alex Cora on the field at Dodger Stadium after winning the 2018 World Series. Cora believes Devers will be a much better hitter in 2019.
Rafael Devers talks with Alex Cora on the field at Dodger Stadium after winning the 2018 World Series. Cora believes Devers will be a much better hitter in 2019.(Harry How/Getty Images)

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