X-Factor in 2014: What top prospect history says about Xander Bogaerts' outlook

January 04, 2014 - 10:25 am

It's not exactly breaking news to suggest that Xander Bogaerts is one of the top prospects in baseball, a potential superstar in the making of whom one evaluator recently suggested his belief that "they may end up making a statue of this guy." 

But even after Bogaerts proved nothing short of spectacular in the postseason, that assessment relates more to his long-term projection than to his immediate outlook. Few would suggest that he's going to fulfill his eventual ceiling as a potential MVP candidate as a rookie in 2014. Even after his impressive showing in the 2013 postseason, at some point, there is an expectation of some transitional challenges that suggests the need for at least some caution in contemplating his likely 2014 impact. 

So, as the Red Sox look forward to the 2014 season, what might they anticipate Bogaerts' contribution to be to their lineup? To get a sense of that, it's worth looking at how other players deemed among the top prospects in baseball performed in their first sustained exposure to the big leagues. 

Bogaerts will be one of Baseball America's top five prospects heading into 2014. From 2000 through 2013, 44 of the 70 players who ranked in the publication's top five prospects were position players. Of those, 29 appeared in the big leagues in the season in which they gained top five status. 

A number of those players were late-season or partial-season call-ups whose initial time in the majors was intended to offer some seasoning in preparation for a more significant unveiling the following year. For instance, Mike Trout was bumped up from Double-A to the big leagues -- and struggled deeply -- in late 2011. Joe Mauer spent about a month and a half in the big leagues before suffering a season-ending injury, then was the Twins' Opening Day catcher the following year. Those players obviously ended up with a different level of exposure to the big leagues than the Sox are surely expecting from Bogaerts in 2014. 

So how about players who spent at least a half-season in the big leagues in the year where they achieved top five prospect status? There have been 18 such players with at least 300 plate appearances since 2000. 

As measured by OPS+ (OPS relative to league average, with 100 representing an average mark):

-- One of those was an absolute superstar (Mike Trout - 168 OPS+ in 2012);

-- Three (Wil Myers - 132 OPS+ in 2013; Jason Heyward - 131 OPS+ in 2010; Evan Longoria - 127 OPS+ in 2008) performed at what might be generally considered star-caliber levels;

-- Two more (Bryce Harper - 118 OPS+ in 2012; Giancarlo Stanton, 118 OPS+ in 2010) performed at something close to star levels;

-- Four (Joe Mauer - 107 OPS+ in 2005; Pat Burrell - 106 OPS+ in 2000; Carlos Pena - 106 OPS+ in 2002; Mark Teixeira - 102 OPS+ in 2003) were slightly better than league average;

-- Six (Rocco Baldelli - 99 OPS+ in 2003; Jay Bruce - 97 OPS+ in 2008; Matt Wieters - 96 OPS+ in 2009; Delmon Young - 91 OPS+ in 2007; Colby Rasmus - 89 OPS+ in 2009) performed at what might be considered slightly below league average;

-- Two (Jeremy Hermida - 84 OPS+ in 2006; Jurickson Profar - 76 OPS+ in 2013) performed at  a level that might be considered notably worse than league average. 

So, of the group of Baseball America top five prospects who were position players since 2000, slightly more than half (10 of 18) fell into the range of slightly above or slightly below league average. One-third (6 of 18) performed at a star-caliber level or close to it. Just 11 percent (2 of 18) were meaningfully below league average. It's interesting to note that age didn't seem to be a significant determining factor among this elite group in terms of the ability to dominate: Four of the six top performers in this group (Trout, Heyward, Harper, Stanton) were 19 or 20 years old. 

Limiting that search to just the players who were asked to manage 500 or more plate appearances yields just 10 of Baseball America's 70 top five prospects from this century -- getting into a range where the sample is so small that it becomes difficult to generalize from it. Still, insofar as Bogaerts is an outlier in terms of prospective talent, it's worth looking at what the small ensemble of other outliers did:

-- One superstar (Trout);

-- Two star-caliber performers (Heyward, Longoria);

-- One near-star (Harper);

-- Two slightly above average (Mauer, Teixeira);

-- Four slightly below average (Baldelli, Young, Gordon, Rasmus). 

Once again, a slightly majority (6 of 10) were slightly above or slightly below league average. The other four of 10 full-season prospects were stars or close to it. 

It's a very small group from which to draw conclusions. Nonetheless, if the recent history of elite prospects offers a guide, Bogaerts' place as one of the elite prospects in the game, at a time when he's viewed as big league-ready, suggests a relatively comfortable projection that he's likely to at least hold his own as a player whose offense stacks up well against league average, with a slightly lesser but still strong possibility that he can emerge as a star performer as a rookie. While the possibility that he will fall far short of league average performance can't be dismissed entirely, based on precedent, such an outcome seems quite unlikely. 

In other words, even a conservative projection would peg Bogaerts as likely to deliver what would be considered above-average production at shortstop (where the term "offensive standards" represents something of an oxymoron) or, if the Sox end up re-signing Stephen Drew (who had a 111 OPS+ in 2013, and who possesses a career 98 OPS+), an upgrade over what the Sox got at third base last season (where they had an 85 OPS+ relative to American League third basemen -- about 15 percent worse production than overall league average at the position). As bright as the 21-year-old's future is, his immediate present -- based on precedent of other standout prospects -- suggests a solid (if not necessarily spectacular -- yet) baseline expectation around which the Sox can build. 

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