thumb image

How 20-year-old Rafael Devers became Boston’s biggest deadline addition

August 2, 2017 | ESPN | By Scott Lauber

BOSTON — Ten days ago, at a time when runs were in shorter supply than water in a desert, the Red Sox called up Rafael Devers from Triple-A, where he had been playing for less than two weeks. To many observers, it seemed like a panic move, as if the 20-year-old top prospect were being rushed in to save a slumping contender.

Carlos Febles only wondered what took so long.

Febles, a former major league infielder with the Kansas City Royals, managed Devers for the first three-and-a-half months of the season at Double-A Portland. In 77 games, Devers batted .300 with a .943 OPS, despite being one of the youngest players in the league. He never went more than three games without a hit and played solid defense at third base. And he demonstrated all-field power. Of his 18 homers, 13 went to center field or the opposite way to left.

Every time Febles’ phone rang, he figured it might be farm director Ben Crockett with word of Devers’ promotion — maybe even to the big leagues. The Red Sox were getting almost no production out of third base and showed last season that they weren’t opposed to calling up players directly from Double-A. They did that with Andrew Benintendi and Yoan Moncada. Why not Devers?

But May turned into June and June into July, and Devers stayed right where he was. Even after Single-A third baseman Michael Chavis got moved to Portland at the end of June, Devers didn’t budge — not until after the All-Star break, when the Red Sox ate $48.3 million to cut ties with Pablo Sandoval and released Jhonny Peralta. Then Devers finally went to Triple-A, and the way Febles saw it, he would probably stay there for a while.

“To be honest with you, I was thinking he would go to Triple-A, spend maybe a month-and-a-half, get a September call-up,” Febles says. “But things came up a little sooner than I was expecting.”

It looks like the Red Sox made a good call. Since Devers debuted last week in Seattle, he is 12-for-28 (.429) with two doubles, two home runs and four RBIs. He takes a six-game hit streak, including his four-hit game Monday night, into the series finale against the Cleveland Indians on ESPN’s Wednesday Night Baseball. And he’s only the sixth Red Sox player in the past 50 years to reach base safely in his first seven major league games, joining Sam Horn, Mo Vaughn, Shea Hillenbrand, Kevin Youkilis and Daniel Nava.

“We just kind of sit and admire his work,” right fielder Mookie Betts says. “Even though he’s young, he still kind of shows us guys that have been around a little bit how to do it. I thoroughly enjoy watching him.”

What changed? Why did the Red Sox stray from the deliberate pace at which they were moving Devers through the farm system and suddenly thrust him into the middle of a pennant race one week before the trade deadline?

“Raffy forced the hand by working hard, by showing he was ready and ultimately performing his way to third base here,” said Red Sox assistant general manager Eddie Romero, who played a role in scouting Devers in the Dominican Republic and signing him at age 16 in 2013. “Our staff just felt like, you know what? He’s ready. Let’s give this kid a chance. Why not?”

DEVERS BECAME A more serious option for the Red Sox on July 20.

For weeks, Boston had been linked to Todd Frazier, a veteran third baseman with middle-of-the-order power who was certain to be traded by the Chicago White Sox. But Frazier also has an expiring contract, which meant the White Sox weren’t likely to get much in return unless they packaged him in a larger deal. Sure enough, they sent Frazier and relievers David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle to the New York Yankees for four players, including 2016 first-round pick Blake Rutherford.

There was still time before the trade deadline, but most of the third-base options were unappealing. Meanwhile, Devers went 4-for-4 with a home run in his Triple-A debut and wasn’t showing signs of slowing down, as he reached base in all nine games he played at that level. If there was a concern, it was Devers’ defense. He committed four errors in eight games at third base.

Looking back, Red Sox president Dave Dombrowski says he spent as much time talking to his own people about Devers as he did talking to other teams about available third basemen. Although Febles says he and Double-A hitting coach Lee May Jr. weren’t part of the conversation to call Devers to the big leagues, their glowing nightly reports from earlier in the season were considered. Crockett chimed in, and so did Romero and Triple-A manager Kevin Boles. Dombrowski even sent special assignment scout Brad Sloan to watch Devers play for a weekend.

“On a daily basis, just talking to people to see how he was handling [Triple-A],” Dombrowski says. “And really, the consensus was that he’s a baseball player, loves to play the game. The options that had been presented to us [in trades], our people would say, ‘Why would you try that? Why don’t you just try [Devers]? He’s in a position where he can do it.'”

Dombrowski greeted Devers last week with two bits of advice: “Have fun. Be yourself.” By all accounts, Devers is doing both, even if he sounds starstruck.

“I knew it was going to be different, but I didn’t think it was going to be this different,” Devers said through a translator. “You see all of these superstars on TV, and you hope to one day be able to meet them. To be able to meet them and say I’m their teammate is pretty cool.”

COMING INTO THE season, there was a decent chance that Devers would struggle early. For one thing, he had never played in the cold New England weather he was about to face in Maine. For another, it took him a while last year to adapt to a new level of play at Single-A Salem. Through Memorial Day last season, he was batting just .185 with four homers and a .578 OPS.

But just as Devers learned from that adversity, the Red Sox learned about him.

“I think that was his first prolonged slump, but it was definitely good for him,” Romero says. “I think he’d be the first person to tell you that. He had to battle his way through not living up to this hype of being a top prospect. Just being able to get over that at a young age, maintain your maturity. He never popped off. He never had an issue. He never showed his frustration outwardly. One thing we knew was he would always continue to work.”

There were no such growing pains in Double-A. If anything, Devers projected confidence. By Febles’ count, 14 of Devers’ home runs for Portland came on two-strike counts. One AL scout who saw Devers in May raved about his improved plate approach, noting that he was “much more selective” and “becoming a man.”

Despite the defensive miscues in Devers’ short Triple-A stint, Febles characterized him as having “soft hands and quick feet,” echoing the evaluations of Salem manager Joe Oliver and New York Mets Double-A manager Luis Rojas, who managed Devers in winter ball the past two years.

“You see his body, and he might not look very athletic, like a guy who’s going to steal 10 bases in a season or even five,” Rojas says. “But he moves a lot better than what you think. And the one thing that really catches your eye is his attitude. He’s always smiling, no matter what happens.”

Ah, yes. The smile. If there has been one defining feature about Devers since his call-up, it is the ever-present smile spread across his face, the same “big, toothy” grin Romero remembers from scouting him as a teenager.

That might be as valuable to the Red Sox as any home runs Devers hits. As a team that has been characterized by David Price’s scowl and often appears to not be having much fun in its quest to stay atop the AL East, the Sox could benefit from the positivity Devers seems to bring.

“He’s young. He’s fully enjoying the game, taking it all in,” Betts says. “That kind of shows us what we need to do: just enjoy the game. He’s definitely doing that.”

Says Romero: “It’s refreshing. It’s energetic. It’s positive. You just hope that never changes. And you know what, since [he was] 15 years old, it hasn’t. I just think that’s who he is.”

FEBLES NOTICED SOMETHING else about Devers. He has some of the same idiosyncrasies as Texas Rangers third baseman Adrian Beltre, a fellow Dominican and the newest member of the 3,000-hit club.

“If you watch him, he steps on the [third-base] bag before every hitter, and on every foul ball, he takes his glove off and attempts to throw to first base,” Febles says. “He jokes around with the first baseman every time he gets on. He will untuck the first baseman’s jersey, like Adrian does. He does exactly what Adrian will do, other than swinging from his knees.”

Devers insists that his favorite player is Robinson Cano, but he finds the Beltre comparisons flattering. They’re fitting, too. Beltre played one season in Boston, batting .321 with 49 doubles, 28 homers, 102 RBIs and a .919 OPS in 2010. Since then, the Sox have used 39 third basemen, including nine this season. From Youkilis and Will Middlebrooks to Sandoval and Travis Shaw, none has stuck.

The Red Sox believe Devers can end that streak, and as July waned, they weren’t willing to wait any longer to find out.

“There’s always some risk and some fear because this is an immense stage,” Romero says. “You’re being thrust into Boston, into Fenway Park, in a pennant race. So there’s obviously some of that, ‘Wow, could this be too big of a stage — for anybody?’ But he’s the same kid now from when we first met him at almost 16 years old, and he’s done nothing different since when he got here. I think that’s why he’s had the early success.”

And it’s why the Red Sox were so sure calling him up was the right move.