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Xander Bogaerts Debut Puts Him in Elite Company

Xander Bogaerts is in elite company. The 20-year-old Red Sox shortstop made his Major League debut last night hitting seventh against pitcher Ryan Vogelsong and the San Francisco Giants.

Between 1970 and 2013, 38 hitters’ rookie seasons came at the age of 20. Some of those names include Rickey Henderson (-0.7 WAR), Sammy Sosa (-0.4), Gary Sheffield (-0.4), Miguel Cabrera (1.0), Buddy Bell (1.5), Giancarlo Stanton (2.3), Alan Trammell (2.7), Andruw Jones (3.7), Roberto Alomar (3.9), Jason Heyward (4.7) and Mike Trout, who had the best debut season of any rookie with 10 WAR.

Of those 38 players, nine were shortstops (including some who later switched positions), including Sheffield and Trammell, as well as more recent players such as Elvis Andrus, Jose Reyes, Starlin Castro, and Ruben Tejada. Clearly, reaching the Majors at 20 years of age doesn’t guarantee success but there is a lot of star power behind the above names.

Sheffield — who played shortstop in his first two MLB seasons before moving to third base and later the outfield — is probably a good comparison for Bogaerts. The former Milwaukee Brewers first rounder (sixth overall in the 1986 draft) actually debuted at the age of 19 but appeared in just 24 games. His rookie season did not officially occur until the next season at age 20.

After last night’s game, the Red Sox have 34 games remaining in the regular season. That means even if the Red Sox prospect were to play everyday, he likely wouldn’t exceed the 130 at-bat mark that would caused his rookie eligibility to expiry. As such, his true rookie season will come in 2014 at the age of 21.

The teenaged Sheffield got his feet wet during his debut season by hit .238/295/.400 in 24 games at the end of the 1988 season. The next year, he hit .247/.303/.337 in 95 games. Injuries plagued his career but he went on to hit 33 home runs at the age of 23. In his career, he had nine all-star appearances and finished second in the AL MVP voting at the age of 35 with the New York Yankees. In total, he finished with a .292 batting average and slugged 509 home runs over a 22-year career but he could have produced even more impressive numbers if he had been able to avoid the regular trips to the disabled list.

Drawing comparisons between Sheffield and Bogaerts certainly sets the bar high for the Red Sox freshman. The 6’3” Aruban is actually more physically imposing than Sheffield, who stood 5’11” but the latter player was known for generating his power with otherworldly bat speed. Bogaerts’ above-average bat speed isn’t at the same level but he still generates plus raw power. He doesn’t have the same eye that Sheffield, a Tampa native, had but he also comes a country where baseball is not nearly as popular and he didn’t face a comparable level of talent as an amateur.

As mentioned above, Sheffield played shortstop for just two seasons and later moved to the hot corner for six seasons. He then made his way to the outfield for the remainder of his career, spending most of his time in right field. Bogaerts is very athletic, like the former Brewer, but he’s arguably more steady at shortstop at a younger age. He makes his fair share of youthful mistakes but his above-average arm helps him compensate for some of his errors.

At least for the remainder for 2013, the rookie is expected to split time between his natural position at shortstop and third base. Bogaerts has just 10 games of pro experience at the hot corner but Ben Crockett, the Red Sox director of player development, told FanGraphs that he’s not worried about Bogaerts’ ability to adapt. “Xander shows enough athleticism to play third base despite his limited reps, but will continue to get better the more he plays,” he said. “Like any rookie, Xander will need to adjust to the off-field component of being called up and finding his place on a new team, but he’s ready for that challenge and more than capable on the field.”

The young player will definitely be looking to make an impact in hopes of securing a spot on the first-place club’s playoff roster. It’s already been a long season for Bogaerts, who opened the year playing the World Baseball Classic during spring training, and isn’t used to a 162-game schedule.

A playoff berth would just prolong the year for the rookie so it will be interesting to see how he responds, and perhaps it helps to explain why Boston isn’t committing to playing him everyday. However, according to Crockett, the club feels that Bogaerts can bring something of value to the veteran squad, even though he’s not a finished product.

“Xander should provide energy, versatility and the chance to give the offense a different look when he plays,” Crockett said. “He will continue to work on the smaller things he was focused on in [Triple-A] Pawtucket – consistency of approach at the plate, the defensive nuances at multiple positions and running the bases with precision.”