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It’s Time to Shoot Xander Bogaerts into Space

As I approach the wrong side of thirty, I find myself shifting preferences when it comes to video games. While my earlier days were filled with shooters or the latest Madden game, I now play more low-key offerings. I’ll still throw in a Bioshock ever now and again, but my game playing time is for more serene these days. Less quick-twitch shooting, more strategy. I play a lot of Civilization V. I play a lot of Out of the Park Baseball. And lately, I’ve been playing a LOT of Kerbal Space Program.

Kerbal Space Program is a sort-of simulator in which you control an alien race that is trying to explore space. You build rockets, achieve goals, and push to discover as much as possible. It’s insanely fun. In fact, as I typed those last few sentences I had to fight a strong urge to save what I was writing and fire the game up again. You start off with small goals — break the planet’s atmosphere, achieve gravitational orbit, land on one of the planet’s moons, etc. But after all that is done, it’s time for interplanetary travel. This is where things get tricky. Not only do you need to design rockets that toe the fine line between needed fuel and mass, you need to check and double check every stage of your rocket to make sure things execute as desired. You don’t want to leave one of your adorable cosmonauts floating around in space with no fuel to get home. There’s a ton of planning and designing to do and when you’re confident you have what you need … you wait.

See, when you’re ready to go to another planet, you can’t shoot out of the atmosphere willy nilly and go. You have to be in proper alignment. If your destination is behind the sun relative to your location, you can’t point and shoot. The stupid sun is in the way. Also, there are gravitational forces at work. In order to conserve fuel, you need to have gravity work for you. Therefor, your destination must align perfectly with your point of origin in order to assure proper trajectory. In Kerbal Space Program, this means waiting. This also means the takeoff windows are fairly small. When the planets align, you have to be ready. This, of course, is a terrible and terribly long analogy for baseball and player development. I could go longer, but I won’t. Instead, I want to talk about Xander Bogaerts.

The planets have aligned for Bogaerts, both metaphorically and analogically. Stephen Drew is gone, and, at least at this point, doesn’t seem to be coming back. Even if he did, it would be likely Bogaerts would take over at third, pushing out Will Middlebrooks. This leaves the reigning World Series champions with an infielder who possesses very little big league experience. This is no ordinary shortstop prospect, however. Bogaerts ranks near the very top of every significant prospect list around. He had a good showing in the 2013 playoffs. Leaving him at AAA, even to start the season, wouldn’t be beneficial to the team or the player. Ready or not, Bogaerts is getting shot into space. But what is to be expected of a 21-year-old shortstop? Can Bogaerts play well enough to make Boston look smart to pass on re-signing Drew?

One way we can guess is by looking at projections. Steamer projects him to be worth about two and half wins above replacement in 2014. Most of this value comes from his glove. Bogaerts had a .374 wOBA in his last season at AAA, and hit well in the 2013 postseason, but Steamer sees his batting to be just about league average in his first full season in the bigs. This is not a bad thing, as his defense can certainly make up for that. ZiPS projects him to be worth about the same amount of wins, with a little more offensive production and a little less defensive value. His number one comparison, according to ZiPS, is Troy Tulowitzki. This is a good thing, and we’ll circle back to that in a little bit. But for the sake of argument, let’s say Bogaerts will be an average-ish hitter with a better-than-average-ish glove. As it happens, this lines up fairly well with two other young shortstops that got thrown in the mix early within recent years.

One that got a trial by fire was Elvis Andrus. Andrus was never ranked as high of a prospect as Bogaerts, but did crack Baseball America’s Top 20 in 2007. Andrus also hit the bigs a year earlier that Bogaerts, as a 20-year-old. But the bigs was about all he hit that year, putting up an 81 wRC+ and a pedestrian on-base percentage. Andrus was an asset in the field, however, worth 13.3 UZR/150. He also provided a few runs of value on the base paths. All in all, he was worth about three wins, certainly a respectable number for a 20-year-old. While Andrus’ value in the field has remained fairly constant, his hitting has never sneaked a peek above league-average. He hovered around that line for a couple years, but has seen a drop off again in 2013. Given Bogaert’s early successes and his penchant for being a highly-ranked prospect, I imagine many would see his career path as a bit of a disappointment if it followed that of Andrus’.

Of course we can’t talk about inconsistent young shortstops if we didn’t mention Starlin Castro. Castro was ranked as the 16th best prospect by Baseball America in 2009, and got his call fairly early into the 2010 season, also as a 20-year-old. He had a similar start to Andrus, providing minimal impact with his bat and counteracting that with his glove. He was a slightly better hitter, but a slightly worse fielder than Andrus, and ended his rookie campaign worth two wins. It’s been a roller coaster since. He started hitting better, then that died down while his defense improved. In 2013, the wheels fell off at the plate, and he ended the season worth -0.1 WAR. Castro has been reported to have some work ethic issues, so that could be part of it, and Steamer sees a bounce-back year in 2014. Still, this would also be a suboptimal result for Bogaerts.

Then, there’s Mr. ZiPS Comp himself, Troy Tulowitzki. Tulo exploded onto the scene in 2007, his first full season. As a 22-year-old, he provided outstanding defense and held his own with the bat, amassing 5.2 WAR when it was all said and done. He narrowly missed the Rookie of the Year award, losing to Ryan Braun by two votes (though Tulo was worth more wins, due mostly to his defense). The main issue with Tulowitzki is his struggles to stay on the field. He seems to flip-flop healthy years and hurt years, though he’s always managed to be productive when healthy. He’s been a very solid defender and has shown a solid mix of hitting and power abilities. His baserunning abilities have dropped, but that’s to be expected from a 28-year-old injury risk playing a premium position. If Bogaerts can follow a similar trajectory as a young (hopefully healthy) Tulowitzki, that would bode well for Boston and their chances at staying at the top of the American League.

Xander Bogaerts is coming, whether you, I, Bogaerts, or John Farrell like it or not. He’s got his work cut out for him, and a lot of different ways his season can go. He could be a no-hit, all-glove shortstop, or one with enough pop in his bat to push him to the upper echelon of the league. His path to glory is littered with a few carcasses of the fallen, but he certainly has a chance. If he succeeds, he’ll be a very important cog in a defending championship team. If he fails, we’ll chalk up another young infield prospect on the list of could-have-beens. Then, we’ll wait for Carlos Correa.