Far away, so close.
With the conclusion of the minor league season on Monday, corner infielder Bobby Dalbec — one of the top three Red Sox prospects — made the short trek from Triple A Pawtucket to Boston. The 24-year-old did so on the heels of a season that made him a solid candidate for a September call-up.
For the year, he hit .239/.356/.460 with 27 homers, including a .257/.301/.478 line with seven homers in 30 games following his early-August promotion from Double A Portland to the PawSox.
Dalbec showed a strong overall skill set in 2019. He showed many traits that suggested a big leaguer.
“This is a guy that can control the strike zone, obviously [he has] power, defensively everyone knows that he’s elite,” said Red Sox manager Alex Cora. “This is a guy that’s obviously very important to the organization. We’re very excited with the strides that he made.”
Yet not quite excited enough to convince the Red Sox to add Dalbec to the big league roster.
Instead, the team brought him to Fenway Park for the homestand to work on aspects of his offensive approach while also getting pregame defensive work at first base.
He’ll spend the homestand with the team, then depart for the offseason — a fall and winter that will include a stint playing for the United States in the Premier12 tournament.
But he will not be added to the big league roster.
The Sox have Rafael Devers at third base. They expect Michael Chavis (soreness in his right side) to return by the weekend, allowing the team to platoon the rookie with Mitch Moreland at first base. The team elected to hold off on a call-up given that Dalbec would have an ill-defined and likely limited role.
Even so, the team is virtually certain to add Dalbec to the 40-man roster this winter. He has already made a compelling case that his time to contribute in the big leagues may be at hand early in 2020.
For his part, while Dalbec understood that it is up to the Red Sox to decide when he’ll start contributing in the big leagues, the slugger believes that his progress in the minors has positioned him to help whenever the Red Sox do call for him.
“I feel ready,” Dalbec said in Pawtucket on Monday, prior to the final game of his minor league season. “[But] they’re not just going to bring me up there to bring me up. They want to feel I’m ready.”
Toward that end, Dalbec expressed eagerness to do everything in his power to persuade the Sox that he is just that. Both during his international competition and while working out in Arizona during the winter, he plans to get plenty of exposure to first base — a position he’d played just five times before this year, but where his future may well lie, especially if he reaches the big leagues with the Red Sox, where Devers seems destined to man the hot corner for the next half-decade.
But it wouldn’t come as a surprise if sometime in 2020 that the Sox deem Dalbec ready to play opposite Devers, as the pace of his development appears to be quickening.
PawSox manager Bill McMillon — who’d seen Dalbec over his entire minor league career dating to when he was taken in the fourth round of the 2016 draft — saw Dalbec make considerable strides in his pitch recognition and selection even in his one month in Pawtucket. McMillon likewise saw Dalbec improve his first base defense in his one month in Triple A.
“Bobby is perhaps one of the most mature guys for his age that I’ve been around. He’s not overwhelmed by any situation. He has a really good demeanor about himself. He takes that into the field,” said McMillon. “He has power to all fields, just a professional-type hitter. There’s still room for development. He swung and missed at some sliders that were down. Once he kind of tightens that up a little bit, I think he has a very high ceiling.
“This is early, but physique-wise, maturity-wise, I saw Scott Rolen when he was young. That would be a [player comparison] that I would put with him,” added McMillon — though noting that Rolen, one of the best defensive third basemen ever, was in a different category with the glove. “Just the way he handled the strike zone, the way he swung, I saw traces of Rolen.”
“Traces of Rolen” — a player who merits significant consideration for Cooperstown — qualifies as an enormous compliment, but it is being applied to Dalbec with increasing frequency.
The righthanded masher shows an exceptional ability to stay back on pitches and pulverize them to right-center field. When he got to Triple A, a level where they use the same ball as in the big leagues rather than the less-explosive ball in lower levels of the minors, Dalbec saw the ease with which his power could translate, in a way that suggests that his 27-homer season in 2019 may fail to capture his true power potential.
“[In batting practice] you can kind of tell. I wasn’t swinging very hard and the ball was going into the parking lot. I was like, ‘This is a joke,’ ” said Dalbec. “It’s a big difference from hitting the Double A balls all year. It makes me feel like I don’t have to swing as hard, which is a good thing. Sometimes in Double A I’d crush a ball and it would get caught in front of the warning track and I’d say, ‘What’s going on?’ ”
That curiosity abated by the end of the year in Pawtucket. Now, it gives way to another: With Dalbec knocking on the door to the big leagues, when will his time come? It is Dalbec’s maturity, perhaps, that allows him not to venture a guess of an answer to that question, and instead to take actions to put himself in the best position to succeed once he does get his opportunity.
“This year, I’ve done a good job of trying to find ways to get a little bit better every day,” said Dalbec. “I can see how I’ve grown up — not that I was immature, but I’m getting better. I like to learn. That 1 percent better every day is one of those things that helps me out.”
And sometime in 2020, the Red Sox hope that the same trait will help their club in the big leagues.