Xander Bogaerts arrived in Boston nearly seven years ago with a preternatural maturity that screamed future leader.
Just 20 years old when he debuted in San Francisco in 2013, he wore No. 72, hit in front of current Cubs manager David Ross, and shared a field with former Red Sox second baseman Marco Scutaro, who was playing across the diamond for the Giants.
Bogaerts went 0 for 3, but impressed teammates with his diligence and professionalism. Two months later, he'd find himself starting in the World Series, earning a championship ring practically before his career had even started.
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It felt like Bogaerts would forever be a promising piece of the next generation as he deferred to superstars like David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia and big clubhouse personalities like Rick Porcello and David Price en route to a second championship in 2018, but eventually the future arrives to take charge of the present, and that time is now.
As the Red Sox prepare to enter a transition season without Mookie Betts, Porcello, or Price, it's tempting to say that a leadership void must be filled, and to an extent that's true. But it would also be overlooking one crucial fact: Bogaerts was already well on his way to making this "his" team, and he hasn't gone anywhere.
Some players are born leaders, while others grow into the role naturally. Bogaerts fits the second description to a tee, playing a supporting role as a rookie and gradually assuming more responsibility every year since.
Last season marked the perfect confluence of production and personality, as Bogaerts exploded on the diamond and took charge off of it. He hit .309 while setting career highs in homers (33), RBIs (117), and OPS (.939), finishing fifth in the MVP voting and earning a starting spot at short on the inaugural all-MLB team.
He also stepped forward as a positive, plain-spoken leader for a team coming apart at the seams, consistently facing the cameras during losing steaks and after demoralizing losses, recognizing that he needed to be the face of the franchise after signing a six-year, $120 million extension.
"Obviously we didn't have the season that we wanted to, but I think it was a little bit of a relief just to get it done and go out there," Bogaerts said. "I think every person that signs a contract still wants to go out there and show that they're worth it."
That's a nice sentiment, but history is littered with players who cashed in and then checked out. That Bogaerts didn't allow himself to become one of them speaks to the pride that he takes in his job and the loyalty he feels to the Red Sox, qualities that management would love to bottle and share with the entire roster.
Those who were there at the very beginning aren't surprised.
"He's the real deal," Ortiz said. "The thing is with Bogaerts, he is so serious about his routine, about how good he wants to be. He is in that group with Mookie, with all the guys that came in from the farm that learned how to play for this team. He has the one year that he figured it out. Now he knows how to get it done."
Ortiz still marvels at Bogaerts' ability to play the sponge early in his career.
"We have conversations and he always tells me, 'Hey, listen, I was blessed enough to come in and learn here from the really good guys that were here when I first stepped in,'" Ortiz said. "He's a guy, Bogaerts, he doesn't talk much but I always say that whoever listens learns more than whoever is always talking. Now that he's been in the clubhouse, he knows when he wants to step in on something and when he doesn't want to get caught in a situation.
The good thing about this ballclub is they have a really good group of guys that know how to run this clubhouse. I have been extremely happy with what I've seen the last couple of years in the clubhouse. I don't go in there much, but once I go, I can feel the really good vibe coming from everybody. I hope that never changes. That's really important.
The Red Sox will need all the good vibrations they can get as they try to overcome low expectations.
For the past couple of years, they've followed the lead of Price, a popular teammate who nonetheless brought a negative vibe to the clubhouse. Price believed in closing ranks, which fostered distrust and even disdain for anyone not on the roster, including the manager, front office, media, and fans.
Bogaerts, by comparison, is far more naturally positive. Interim manager Ron Roenicke noted that just seeing his shortstop's smile every morning for the last two years put a hop in his step as bench coach. He stopped short of declaring this, "Bogaerts' team," but added that he has earned in particular the respect of the Latin players, with whom the multi-lingual Bogaerts can bridge divides.
A minor ankle injury has delayed the start of Bogaerts' spring, but once he gets going, he can't wait to see what the Red Sox can do. Even without Betts, they return a formidable lineup. The fate of their season rests on the health of the starting rotation, but Bogaerts likes being in a position where they can prove people wrong.
"If you ask me, I think no one would pretty much bet on us to win it," Bogaerts said. "We have a lot of veterans still on the team. I think that will help us, especially when we go through stretches, guys that have been there before, guys who have been part of good teams, bad teams and been through the ups and downs of the season. I'm definitely anxious for it to start, try to get right first and see what we can do as a team."
Whatever they do, don't be surprised if Bogaerts is leading the way.