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June 12, 2013 at 7:55 AM

Scouting Scratch: Xander Bogaerts and Michael Almanzar

- For the first month or so of the season, Xander Bogaerts (pictured) was hitting the ball well in Portland, but the power wasn’t there. As the weather has warmed, however, his power has returned. During a recent scouting look, Bogaerts showed why his power consistently grades 65-to-better on the 20-to-80 scouting scale. Bogaerts has elite bat speed and the ball jumps off his bat. He generates great lift with an effortless swing and can drive the ball to all fields. This ability to work to all fields was on display within a single game recently when he homered twice, once to center field and then to left field, before doubling to right-center in his final at-bat.

Bogaerts’ first home run came on a 1-1 hanging 81-mph curveball up in the zone. He stayed back on the pitch then exploded with his hands, generating great backspin and driving the ball out. In his next at-bat, Bogaerts took a first pitch fastball down and away before he got another hanging breaking ball, this time a flat 85-mph slider. Again, he stayed back and inside the baseball, driving the ball with authority out to left field. Both times, he recognized the pitch early, and even though they were hangers, he did what a hitter of his caliber should do with them.

Bogaerts’ final at-bat was arguably more impressive than the two at-bats that ended in home runs. Up to this point in the game, he had only faced hard throwing right-handers. This time, he came up against a soft-tossing, side-arming left-hander. Bogaerts got ahead 2-1 before swinging and missing against an 84-mph fastball. With the count 2-2, Bogaerts again got a fastball, this time up and on the outside part of the plate. Bogaerts waited back and kept his hands in before getting great extension to go with the pitch for a line-drive double to right-center field. Even though he had already homered twice, he didn’t try to do too much and pull the ball; rather, he took what the pitcher gave him.

One of the knocks on Bogaerts coming into the season was that his approach was too aggressive at times. Over this scouting look, he worked three walks, while not striking out. In his fourth at-bat of the first game scouted, he showed off his developing approach, laying off some tough pitches including two off-speed pitches in fastball counts from a hard-throwing reliever, before eventually walking. Similarly, in the next game scouted, he continued to lay off these tough pitches, including both fastballs he couldn’t do much with and secondary offerings designed to catch him off-balance. He seems to be picking up off-speed pitches earlier, which is really helping him because Eastern League pitchers have thrown him plenty this season.

While the bat has never been an issue for Bogaerts, questions about his defensive profile have followed him through every level. After another look at him in the field, however, I think he has the ability to stay at shortstop for the foreseeable future. Bogaerts is athletic for his size, listed as 6-foot-3 and 185 pounds, and the main thing that would push him off the position would be to bulk up much more, especially in his lower half; his frame does look like it could stand to fill out though. In the field, he showed off a plus arm that easily plays at shortstop and he made the routine plays. He has good hands and solid range to each side. Mainly, it is his lower half that limits his defensive profile. Bogaerts’ footwork isn’t great, as he doesn’t gain ground on the ball, preferring to stay back on it and wait for a perfect hop. He also doesn’t look that confident charging the ball, or throwing at angles or on the run. Furthermore, even when he stays back on the ball he can get lazy with his footwork on the throw, relying on his strong arm to make up for it. Finally, he doesn’t seem to get the best read off the bat, especially on balls up the middle, including a weak groundball up the middle that he had to dive for, but was still able to make the play. For many shortstops it was a ball they could have reached while staying on their feet. Even with those shortcomings in mind, there is no need to move him off the position now or any time soon, as a player who can play even adequate defensive at shortstop with his offensive profile is a potential superstar.

- Unlike Bogaerts, Michael Almanzar (pictured) hasn’t had as smooth a journey to Double-A, but now that he is there, he looks like someone who belongs. Almanzar has always had power in his 6-foot-3 frame, but it hasn’t always carried into game action. This season it has, however, as he has improved his pitch recognition skills somewhat and worked to clean up his swing mechanics. Almanzar has long arms and as a result it takes him some time to get the bat into the strike zone. He still struggles with good velocity on the inner half, tending to come around those pitches and constantly getting jammed. When he gets a pitch out and over the plate and is able to extend his arms, he has a lot more success, showing off a more fluid swing with leverage that generates backspin.

This improvement was on display in a game scouted recently when he got a 3-2 curveball that hung up in the zone. The pitch didn’t have much movement and Almanzar picked it up early, staying on it then clearing out the inside pitch deep to left field. Because he recognized it early, he was able to get good separation in his stride and keep his hands inside the baseball. His swing has also looked a lot more controlled this season, and that has led to him making more contact and to a much better situational-hitting approach. In a recent game scouted, Almanzar twice hit the ball to right field, albeit very weakly, in a hit-and-run situation. Both pitches were tough to handle, but Almanzar showed great bat control to muscle the ball to the area vacated by the second baseman for singles. Similarly, with a runner on third and less than two outs later in that same game, Almanzar got ahead in the count 3-1. Expecting a fastball, Almanzar instead got a slurvey breaking ball out and over the plate. In past seasons he might have been all geared up for the fastball and swung way early, but instead he seemed to recognize the pitch early enough that he could keep his weight back and drive the ball to center for a sacrifice fly.

Almanzar’s pitch recognition skills are still very inconsistent, as he is tracking the ball better, but he often still is caught way out in front of off-speed pitches. Almanzar has made strides at the plate, but at this point I’m still in a wait-and-see mode, as there are still major deficiencies, especially in his approach, that advanced pitchers could easily take advantage of.

Defensively, Almanzar is still very rough at third base. He has a strong arm that can play at the position, but the rest of the skillset is the problem. He is tall and lanky, and as a result he isn’t very athletic for the position. His feet are slow and he has limited his range. At times he is almost too loose with his body in the field, which leads to very choppy footwork and poor posture. He also seems to lose focus in the field at times, committing lazy errors and letting the ball play him rather than attacking it.

Photo credit: Xander Bogaerts and Michael Almanzar by Kelly O'Connor

Ian Cundall is a Northeast Scout for SoxProspects.com. Follow him on Twitter @IanCundall.