Xander Bogaerts destined for bigs

BALTIMORE -- His first name is a diminutive form of one favored by conquerors and popes, kings and emperors, inventors and poets. It is pronounced ZAN-der in English, and KSAHN-dur in Dutch, one of the languages of his native Aruba. In its native Greek, it translates to "defender of men."

His last name most typically recalls a Golden Age-era movie star who was a giant on the big screen, just as the Red Sox hope that their Bogaerts, who would tower over Bogie, might one day become one on a baseball diamond.

On Friday night, while the grown-up Red Sox were being shut out, 2-0, by the Baltimore Orioles, shortstop Xander Bogaerts of San Nicolaas made his debut for the Triple-A Pawtucket Red Sox a memorable one. He walked in his first plate appearance, then reached on an infield hit and scored the game's only run in walk-off fashion in the opener of a doubleheader. In the second game, he hit his first Triple-A home run and hit a two-out single just before another walk-off hit in extra innings.

Until Friday afternoon, the PawSox thought that Bogaerts, at 20 years, 8 weeks and 13 days, was the youngest player ever to play for them. They were alerted by former Sox catcher Gary Allenson that when he played in Pawtucket in 1977, shortstop Glenn Hoffman was 19 when he made his PawSox debut. But few players of any age have come hurtling through the Sox system with the fanfare that has accompanied Bogaerts, and with every passing day he does something that justifies all the raves.

"It's exciting," Sox manager John Farrell said in Baltimore on Thursday, the day Bogaerts was promoted from Double-A Portland to Pawtucket. "We keep somewhat of an eye on them, we get the daily reports and kind of read up how guys are doing, the guys you've been exposed to in spring training. And certainly all the attention, and rightfully so, that he's generated across the game [is justified], not only inside our organization. This looks to be a pretty special player. He's well ahead of the age curve, being in Triple-A at 20."

The Red Sox are committed to taking their time in the care and grooming of their prized prospects, which is why they grappled with opening the season with outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. in the big leagues after he'd had such a brief exposure -- little more than a full season -- to pro ball.

But their biggest prize of all is Bogaerts, who's ranked as the team's top prospect and rated No. 8 in the major leagues by Baseball America. And he's dictating his own timetable; one that could have him staking a place on Yawkey Way before the end of the summer.

Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington was speaking of another gifted young player, Jose Iglesias, when he said a player tells a team when he is ready for the big leagues. That has held true for Iglesias, who was expected to be just a temporary fill-in when he was called up after Will Middlebrooks was hurt but instead has extended his lease in Boston with a torrid bat to match his magician's hands afield.

Bradley did the same, in reverse fashion, when he struggled mightily in his first taste at this level, though he has shown enough to erase any doubts he will be back to stay sooner rather than later.

And so, too, will Bogaerts, who signed with the Sox before he'd finished high school and has thrived at every level of pro ball despite being younger than most of his peers. He's had 16 home runs in just 72 games as an 18-year-old in Class A Greenville and a combined 20 home runs as a 19-year-old in Class A Salem (15) and Double A Portland (5), after joining the Sea Dogs in August and becoming the youngest player in the Eastern League.

He hit a home run in his Portland debut, just as he did in his first night in a Pawtucket uniform on Friday.

He attended his first big league camp this spring, an experience that was interrupted by playing for the Netherlands in the World Baseball Classic, starting at third base and DH-ing for the kingdom.

The size (6-foot-3), the bat speed and the power were evident to all who watched this spring. Still, with Iglesias ticketed to open the season in Pawtucket, Bogaerts began this season in Portland. But there was no keeping him there. Not when he batted .424 in his first 10 games in June, improving his overall slash line to .311/.407/.502.

He is the first 20-year-old in the Eastern League since Nick Johnson in 1999 to have a .300-plus average, .400-plus on-base average, and .500-plus slugging average, as noted by Alex Speier of WEEI.com, who compiled a list of notables at a similar age in the Eastern League and showed Bogaerts is outperforming nearly all of them.

Among the names on that list: Manny Machado, Anthony Rizzo, Andrew McCutchen, Ryan Zimmerman, Joe Mauer, Jose Reyes, Adrian Gonzalez, Brandon Phillips and Jimmy Rollins.

None of the Sox brass was evident in attendance at McCoy Stadium. They didn't have to be to watch, having installed a closed-circuit camera system that allows them to watch all of their minor league teams in real time on Yawkey Way. It's a virtual lock that at least someone ate dinner in front of a TV screen there Friday night.

No one says Bogaerts is ready for a cubicle next to David Ortiz just yet. There are still adjustments to be made. And the Red Sox infield is rather crowded at the moment, with Iglesias, Middlebrooks and Stephen Drew.

The plan, Farrell said, is for Bogaerts to play the first week or so in Pawtucket at short, then move him around in the infield, spending some time at third and short. They did the same just days before calling up Iglesias, and clearly are increasing the odds that he will receive a similar summons if a need arises.

"In the situation he's in," Farrell said, "if we have some unforeseen things take place here through injury and he's the best bat available, we want to be sure we've at least exposed him to other positions so we wouldn't have hesitation to move him into another spot."

There is another scenario that puts Bogaerts in the big leagues ahead of schedule: He plays so well, the Sox have no choice but to promote him. Last week, the Los Angeles Dodgers promoted a 22-year-old Cuban prospect named Yasiel Puig, even though he had just 63 games of experience in pro ball here (just 43 as high as Double-A). In his first 10 games in the big leagues, Puig has 17 hits, including four home runs, and has driven in 10 runs.

The skills of the truly special kids -- Puig and Bryce Harper and Mike Trout -- ultimately trump any clock, including the one that is now ticking for The Defender of Men.

"It's very impressive," Farrell said of Bogaerts' advance, "as is he. That's the one thing you take away from spring training. You see the tools, you see the ability, but you get to know the guy and see how he acts. The guy lights up a room when he walks into it. He's got charisma, he's got a lot going for him."