TAMPA, Fla. — Rafael Devers happily made the short flight from the Dominican Republic to Puerto Rico in December when Red Sox manager Alex Cora invited him to work with kids at a baseball clinic.
Cora knew the 22-year-old Devers would be a hit with the young players. But he also wanted to sit down with Devers and impress on him just how important he was to the Sox.
The trip also included a Marc Anthony concert and some time getting to know Cora’s family.
“He spent 48 hours in Puerto Rico and he learned a lot from the island,” Cora said.
Devers carried those lessons into spring training, his performance standing out in what has otherwise been an uninspiring camp for the Sox. The third baseman has hit .438 through 12 games with four extra-base hits and a 1.094 OPS.
Devers was 1 for 3 on Friday during a 14-1 loss against the Yankees. But there also were two misplays in the field that served as a reminder he remains very much a developing player.
“I’m trying to look the best I can out there,” Devers said.
Devers made a significant impact over 58 games as a rookie in 2017, posting an .819 OPS and playing what amounted to average defense. The Sox saw him blossoming into an All-Star caliber player.
But last season was a disappointment from the start when Devers reported to spring training heavier than the team wanted. He then hit .240 with a .731 OPS and struck out 121 times in 450 at-bats.
His defense dropped off, too. Based on negative-13 defensive runs saved, Devers was one of the worst third basemen in the game. He also committed 24 errors. The Sox felt that because Devers had to work extra in spring training to lose weight, he was worn down once the season started.
Devers played better in the postseason but started only eight of the 14 games and sat out three entirely.
With third base prospects Michael Chavis and Bobby Dalbec working their way into Triple A and Double A respectively, Devers also faced competition. That was why he was summoned to Puerto Rico.
“We challenged him,” Cora said. “He made a commitment. He got a strength and conditioning coach in the Dominican, a nutritionist in the Dominican. He did the same thing [for spring training].
“He understands. He sees the guys around him, how they go about their business — J.D. [Martinez], Mookie [Betts], Jackie [Bradley Jr.] — and you learn from them. He’s only 22. Sometimes we take him for granted but he’s only a kid and he’s still learning.”
Just how much Devers has improved athletically was apparent in the second inning on Friday when Miguel Andujar grounded a ball slowly down the line with two outs.
Devers fielded a tricky hop while charging in, used the base to push off and made a strong throw to get the out.
But with the bases loaded in the second inning, Devers showed some inexperience. When D.J. LeMahieu hit a slow ground ball his way, Devers looked to the plate then dropped the ball when he turned to first.
The throw was late and Devers was charged with an error. The Yankees went on to score four more runs.
“In that situation just get one out,” Cora said. “We don’t have to get the out at the plate, just get one out and move on. That put us in a bad spot.”
Devers failed to square up on a ball later in the game that was ruled a hit.
“I worked a lot on my defense in the offseason,” he said. “I made it a point to work a little extra on it.”
There’s no question the effort is there. When the Red Sox were off on Monday, Devers was at the clubhouse at 8 a.m. to work out in the weight room with Xander Bogaerts then run some sprints.
“It was actually Xander trying to catch up with Devers,” Cora said. “He’s in a really great place. I’m very proud of Raffy.”
Cora has tinkered with a lineup that would have Devers hitting third, meaning behind Betts and ahead of Martinez. It’s hard to imagine a more advantageous spot for any hitter.
“It’s a big job but it’s one that I’m ready for if given the opportunity,” Devers said via translator Daveson Perez. “I’m ready for whatever position they want me in.
“Mookie and [leadoff hitter Andrew Benintendi] will get on base a lot and having the production of J.D. behind me will mean a lot of chances.”
Said Cora: “I think it’s too early for me to decide how we’re going to go there. But so far so good. I love that the fact that’s staying in the middle of the field. He’s not trying to hit homers. He’s getting a few two-strike hits. He likes the spot.”
Devers is often compared with Andujar, a 24-year-old Dominican who also debuted in 2017 and last season had an .855 OPS while struggling at third base.
“I don’t want him to be Andujar; I want him to be Raffy Devers,” Cora said. “I think he has the potential — and everybody knows it — to have a monster year offensively.”