BOSTON (CBS) — “What’s the difference? I mean, David [Ortiz] is not here. He was definitely a huge part of our team for the years I was here. We definitely miss him.”
– Xander Bogaerts to assembled media following Thursday night’s Red Sox defeat
Xander Bogaerts is 100 percent correct, of course. But it’s the wrong answer.
Did you hear, Red Sox fans? David Ortiz retired last year. The Red Sox reported to spring training without him this year – nearly two months ago – for the first time in 14 seasons. Apparently, this is still dawning on the members of a Red Sox lineup that has now scored just 78 runs in 21 games, ranks 13th among the 15 AL teams in runs scored and has a paltry 11 home runs. The Red Sox have scored 11 runs in the last seven games and been shut out three times. On Wednesday they scored once. On Saturday they scored twice. (It was downright explosive.)
So let me tell you what Bogaerts should have said: “It doesn’t really matter what the difference is between this year and last year. I’m not sure what you guys are driving at, but we have plenty of talented players in this room. We certainly have the talent to do better than we’re doing. So I think we should all look in the mirror and ask what we can do better to improve the offense, starting with me.”
For now, it’s that last part I’d like to focus on.
Bogaerts is 24 now, folks. He’s in his fourth full major league season. He’s still young, to be sure, but he has also been around long enough to start assuming more of a leadership role with the Red Sox. Mookie Betts and Jackie Bradley are essentially in the same boat. But Bogaerts remains the biggest mystery of the three because he may now be more than halfway through his career with the Red Sox and we don’t know who or what he is.
Let me explain.
At the end of the 2019 season, Bogaerts will be a free agent. He is represented by Scott Boras. In Bogaerts, the Red Sox had a huge dilemma to begin with, specifically in the long-term signability of that rare player who can be stationed in both the middle of the diamond and the middle of the lineup.
So here’s the question: is Bogaerts that guy?
In 2015, once the Red Sox fully committed to him at shortstop, Bogaerts had a terrific season. He played in 156 games, batted .320, posted an OPS of .776 and played good defense. He had monthly batting averages of, in order, .274, .275, .312, .371, .324 and .357. Bogaerts looked like a budding Derek Jeter, his idol, and made a living out of shooting singles and doubles to the opposite field.
The one thing he didn’t do? Home runs. And it was an obvious focus entering 2016.
Last season, through the end of June, Bogaerts had played in 76 games and was blossoming into a bona fide superstar. He was batting .342 with an .884 OPS, nine home runs and 50 RBI. He was essentially on pace to finish with 200+ hits, 20 home runs, 100 RBI, 40 doubles and 120 runs scored. He even had 10 steals. Shortly thereafter, he went into the kind of funk that could not help but leave you scratching your head, batting .230 over the final two months before going 3-for-12 (all singles) with four strikeouts in the postseason.
Was he the only Sox player who struggled in the playoffs? No. But such is the burden that comes with talent and, consequently, expectation.
On the surface, Bogaerts looks like he is off to a decent start this year. In 17 games played, he is batting .313. And while he had at least two big hits for the Red Sox in this early season, both were opposite-field singles. Of Bogaerts’ 20 hits this year, 19 have been singles. He has one double and no home runs. He is slugging a paltry .328, an absurdly low number for someone with his six (6-foot-1, 215 pounds) and batting average.
Of course, Bogaerts alone is hardly responsible for the Red Sox’ offensive woes. Hanley Ramirez, by comparison, is slugging just .324. Dustin Pedroia is batting .242. Andrew Benintendi’s team-leading 26 hits include 21 singles. The Sox have gotten little offense from third base (Pablo Sandoval is now on the disabled list) and catcher Sandy Leon is down to .180, and they were too right-handed from the start.
All of that said, Bogaerts was supposed to be a franchise centerpiece when he came up in 2013. By the end of 2015 and through the first half of 2016, he was playing like one. Since then, he has looked like a different player again – a good one, to be sure – and the Red Sox need to know exactly what he is before anyone can seriously engage into any long-term discussion about Bogaerts’ place in the team’s long-term future.
In the interim, meaning now, they just need him – and everyone else, of course – to be better.
And the sooner they stop talking about David Ortiz, the better.