Red Sox

This is Xander Bogaerts' Red Sox team; here's why that's a great thing

This is Xander Bogaerts' Red Sox team; here's why that's a great thing

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.

Hindsight 2020: Bobby Valentine's role in Daniel Bard's Red Sox freefall

Hindsight 2020: Bobby Valentine's role in Daniel Bard's Red Sox freefall

There's plenty of blame to heap on Bobby Valentine for the disaster that was the 2012 Red Sox.

He created an atmosphere of paranoia among his coaches, fostered distrust among his players, and allowed a lack of accountability that permeated the organization to start at his door.

It only took the Red Sox one year to clean up his mess, with John Farrell overseeing the Boston Strong World Series that erased the memory of 2012 before it could fester.

That said, Valentine botched the implementation of one decision with truly lasting consequences: the transition of Daniel Bard from reliever to starter, which is today's managerial installment in our Hindsight 2020 series.

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In an alternate universe, Bard is still closing games for the Red Sox as a 34-year-old All-Star entering his 12th season. Instead, he's effectively out of baseball, undone by a mystifying inability to throw strikes that started on Valentine's watch and snowballed into something heartbreaking.

More than 10 years later, it's hard to overstate the impact Bard made when he arrived in 2009 as a flame-throwing reliever, just three years after being selected in the first round of the 2006 draft out of North Carolina.

He struck out 63 in just 49.1 innings as a rookie before making the leap in 2010, posting a 1.93 ERA in 73 appearances and striking out over a batter an inning. He regressed in 2011, posting a 2-9 record and losing four games during the September collapse that hastened the departures of both manager Terry Francona and GM Theo Epstein, opening the door for Valentine.

Before the new skipper even arrived, Bard had already planted the seeds with general manager Ben Cherington. Drafted as a starter, Bard saw a return to the rotation as a chance to make real money. It did not escape his notice that All-Star closer Jonathan Papelbon received $50 million in free agency from the Phillies the same offseason that converted reliever C.J. Wilson cashed in for $75 million with the Angels.

Though dominant eighth-inning arms were invaluable when Bard arrived in 2009, they weren't the showstoppers they are today. Bard's former UNC teammate, Andrew Miller, would help usher in that era a few years later with the Yankees and Indians, and he has been well-compensated for it. His career earnings should top $80 million if the 2020 season is played.

So with that backdrop, it made sense that Bard would want to rejoin the rotation. That the Red Sox would agree wasn't a slam dunk, since he had started his career in horror-show fashion at High-A Lancaster, allowing a staggering 44 baserunners in just 13.1 innings in 2007, exhibiting some of the symptoms that would derail his career five years later — namely an inability to throw strikes.

Those struggles prompted a move to the bullpen, and Bard soared to the majors two years later.

By the time spring training rolled around in 2012, Bard expressed confidence that the transition would work. Valentine wasn't nearly as sold, with stories leaking that he'd return Bard to the bullpen at his first opportunity, and an infamous answer of "could be" just days into the season when asked if Bard might assume the closer's role in the wake of struggles by Mark Melancon and Alfredo Aceves. It's doubtful that stance did much for Bard's confidence as a starter.

"I wouldn't be doing it if I didn't think it was going to work," Bard insisted at the time. "I'm all in. I'm committed to it and they are, too."

Bard opened the season as the fifth starter and seemed to find his groove in late April, limiting the Rays to one run in one start (albeit while walking 7) and then beating the White Sox with seven effective innings of three-run ball.

Then came the June start in Toronto that changed everything. Bard missed the plate so badly, it was scary. He lasted just 1.2 innings after surrendering five runs on only one hit, walking six, drilling two, and sending two fastballs to the backstop. He left Valentine no choice but to yank him before he hurt someone.

Unfortunately, irreparable damage had been done to his career, and Bard seemed to sense it that night.

"I allowed something to happen when I switched roles,'' he said. "I think it's just maybe that we tried to turn me into a starter rather than just take the same pitcher I was out of the pen and move that guy to the rotation, which is probably what we should've done."

Bard disappeared for three months before returning on Aug. 31 in a 20-2 loss to the A's as a reliever. He allowed runs in five of his final six relief appearances. He made just two appearances in 2013 — earning a World Series ring as a result — and hasn't appeared in a big league game since.

He announced his retirement in 2017, but attempted a comeback with the Rockies this spring, allowing seven runs and eight baserunners in just 1.2 innings.

It's entirely possible his career would've ended this way no matter which path he chose — after all, the wheels had already started coming off in 2011, when he posted a 10.64 ERA in September. But even though Valentine isn't to blame for the decision to make Bard a starter, the half-hearted way he implemented it and the mixed messages he sent along the way set the formerly dominant reliever on a path to ruin.

Darwinzon Hernandez: 'I’m ready' to be a starter

Darwinzon Hernandez: 'I’m ready' to be a starter

The Boston Red Sox have serious concerns with their pitching staff. With Chris Sale out for the long haul after undergoing Tommy John surgery, the Red Sox are down to just a few known commodities among their starting rotation.

Eduardo Rodriguez will be the team's ace. Nathan Eovaldi and Martin Perez will follow him in the rotation. But the fourth and fifth spots in the rotation are a bit harder to predict.

Before Sale's surgery and before the MLB shut down operations due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it seemed like Ryan Weber was the leading candidate to earn a job in the back end of the rotation. If he's the fourth starter, that will leave the Sox with just one hole to fill in the fifth starter slot.

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And one possibility for that role would be Darwinzon Hernandez. The left-hander pitched in 29 games for the Red Sox last season logging a 4.45 ERA and 57 strikeouts in 30 1/3 innings pitched. Hernandez only made one start for the Sox, but he considers himself to be a starter at the MLB level. 

"Everyone knows I’d love to start. Absolutely," Hernandez said, per Peter Abraham of The Boston Globe. "That is what every pitcher wants and I still feel like I can do it. I enjoyed being a reliever and I’ll do whatever the team asks. The important thing is to be on the team. But, yes, I want to start."

Hernandez was a starter during his time in the minor leagues and has started at least 12 games per season since 2015. The 23-year-old still has a lot of upside and he believes that he's ready to take on a starting job.

"I’m ready. I’ve matured as [a] pitcher,” Hernandez said through a translator. "In the minors, I would just throw but when I got to the majors, they taught me how to pitch and the importance of working hard and locating your pitches, mixing your pitches. I learned how to pitch and not just throw."

Of course, the decision will ultimately come down to Ron Roenicke. And the Sox skipper at least seemed open to Hernandez battling for a starting job before spring training was shut down.

"You have to consider [starting Hernandez]," Roenicke said last month, per Abraham. "He’s still a young pitcher and there’s a lot to work with. I could see us looking at this again and giving him a chance to start."

Hernandez will have some competition for that final spot. The Red Sox did sign Collin McHugh after Sale's setback. The former Houston Astros pitcher could be a starter or bullpen arm, but he'll have to get healthy first. He was battling an elbow injury upon joining the team and it's unclear exactly when he'll return to action.

The team could also choose to use the opener strategy that the Tampa Bay Rays have popularized in recent seasons. Could that involve Hernandez playing that role? Or being the "bulk" guy to take on innings once the opener is done? It's surely possible.

It's tough to know what the Red Sox are going to do with their rotation. They'll likely have to mix and match things if and when the season does begin. But that could be a while away.

For the time being, Roenicke will have more time to think about just how he wants his pitching staff to shake out. And with rosters to be expanded in wake of the pandemic, per Joel Sherman of The New York Post, Roenicke may opt to try a few different solutions before settling on his preferred option.