Time for Red Sox to consider Xander Bogaerts' future at shortstop

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Tomase: It's time to talk about Bogaerts' future at shortstop originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

Unless you're Derek Jeter or Barry Larkin, nearly every great offensive shortstop of the last 50 years eventually ends up somewhere else.

Robin Yount began his career as an MVP shortstop and ended it as an MVP center fielder. A little more than a year after breaking Lou Gehrig's consecutive-games record, Cal Ripken shifted to third base. Nomar Garciaparra made his final All-Star team as a first baseman. Alex Rodriguez transitioned from short to third to DH to exile.

The two notable exceptions of this generation -- Hall of Famers Larkin and Jeter -- clearly overstayed their respective welcomes in the middle of the diamond. To the extent that Jeter, technically a five-time Gold Glover, was ever a good fielder, those skills had permanently abandoned him when he played 130 games at short as a 40-year-old in 2014 and cost the Yankees a staggering 28 runs, per Baseball Info Solutions. Larkin was a less extreme negative during his final season, also at age 40, in 2004 with the Reds.

Tomase: Red Sox still in good shape in tight Wild Card race

You can probably see where this is headed. It brings me no joy to say it, but if the Red Sox aren't urgently contemplating what's next for All-Star shortstop Xander Bogaerts, they're not doing their jobs.

Just a couple of weeks shy of his 29th birthday, Bogaerts remains an elite offensive force, a .300-.500.-900 superstar with 30-homer power, near-total plate coverage (save for the occasional slider away), and a penchant for delivering in big moments.

He has been described so many times as the heart and soul of the Red Sox that the phrase sounds rote, but it's true. Whereas many of Boston's stars start scanning for exits as soon as free agency beckons, Bogaerts not only accepted less money to stay, he then delivered.

He owns two World Series rings since debuting in 2013 and if next year's opt-out doesn't get in the way, he'll anchor the next contending Red Sox team, too. He was built to play here, he's homegrown, and with a little luck, he may never don another uniform.

All of that praise established, here comes the sucker punch: He's a liability at a primary defensive position. And the Red Sox must design a way forward.

Coming up short

Bogaerts' rank among 35 shortstops in outs above average (Baseball Savant)

34th

Variation

Single

That they can't play defense in 2021 has been long established. The latest blemish came Monday night, when Kyle Schwarber, playing out of position at first base, booted a routine two-out grounder that set up the decisive three-run homer in a 5-4 loss to the Mariners.

You want bad defense, step right up to the buffet. Rafael Devers made every April groundball an adventure. During his four-month slump before catching fire in August, first baseman Bobby Dalbec fielded as poorly as he swung. The arrival of Schwarber and the hammer of COVID forced manager Alex Cora to reconfigure the outfield in ways that proved murderous defensively, because any alignment other than Alex Verdugo in left, Kiké Hernández in center, and Hunter Renfroe in right will cost the team runs.

Overlooked through all of the defensive struggles, however, is Bogaerts, maybe because he's hitting .300 with 21 bombs, including one during Monday's futile comeback. Or maybe it's because he's popular and we'd rather avert our eyes.

Of 23 shortstops to play at least 800 innings this season, Bogaerts ranks 19th in defensive runs saved at minus-five, per Fangraphs. The advanced metrics at Baseball Savant are even harsher, putting him 34th out of 35 shortstops in outs above average at minus-nine, 27 runs behind leader Nick Ahmed of the Diamondbacks.

The problem isn't errors. Bogaerts is sure-handed and has only made eight of them. It's range. While Bogaerts converted a highlight-reel play up the middle over the weekend from his knees vs. the White Sox, ask yourself this: When did he last wow you from the hole?

Like Garciaparra at roughly the same age, the 6-foot-2 Bogaerts doesn't cover a lot of ground, particularly to his right. That's part of the reason Red Sox pitchers have allowed a league-worst .324 batting average on balls in play, about 35 points worse than average.

Tomase: Schwarber's bat creates pressing defensive question for Sox

Needless to say, every ball not converted into an out is another chance at a run, as the Red Sox have learned with disturbing frequency.

Their defensive issues are what they are and there's no way to fix them now. If they're fortunate enough to reach the playoffs, their stay will almost certainly be short, because teams that can't field can't last in the postseason.

The question is the future. Bogaerts played third as a rookie in order to crack the lineup, but when the Red Sox tried to move him back there midway through 2014 to make room for Stephen Drew, it did a number on him psychologically. He plays with pride and he considers himself a shortstop. Full stop.

If Chaim Bloom and Cora want to broach a position change, they'll have to do so delicately, particularly as he enters what is effectively a contract year. The good news is Bogaerts' bat plays anywhere. If management wanted to radically realign the infield, Bogaerts could move to third and Devers to first. Another possibility would be going the Marcus Semien route and shifting to second base, a move that will earn the former A's shortstop MVP votes with the Blue Jays.

What's clear to anyone paying attention is that for all his leadership, character, and offensive greatness, Bogaerts' days as an everyday shortstop need to end sooner than later if the Red Sox want to remake their infield defense.

There's certainly no shame in it. It's a fate reserved for virtually all elite shortstops. Some just get there a little sooner than others.