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July 24, 2017 at 3:00 PM

Transaction Analysis: Breaking down the Rafael Devers call-up

Following another loss on Sunday in which the offense struggled to score runs, Red Sox President of Baseball Operations Dave Dombrowski announced that the team was calling up the farm system’s top prospect, third baseman Rafael Devers. Devers will join the team in Seattle on Monday and make his first start on Tuesday (against Felix Hernandez). Indications are that he will be the club’s primary third baseman against right-handed pitchers, with Deven Marrero continuing to man the position against left-handers.

The move comes just one week after the 20-year-old Devers was promoted to Triple-A Pawtucket—a move that many had clamored for much sooner. The promotion evoked reactions across the spectrum: The Red Sox are making the move to kick-start the offense, or perhaps they’re getting a look at Devers in the majors before making a move for another third baseman by the deadline. 

Third base has been a black hole for the Red Sox this year with the seven players who have played there putting up a combined line of .227/.280/.320 and -1.9 bWAR, 28th in baseball at the position. For context, the AL average at third base is .252/.321/.438 and MLB average is .257/.330/.445. The Red Sox are hoping that Devers can give them a much-needed boost, but the move is aggressive—Devers will become the youngest active player in the majors by just short of eight months—and Devers could struggle out of the gates, especially defensively.

Devers signed with the Red Sox as a 16-year-old out of the Dominican Republic for $1.5 million in July 2013. He was considered one of the top bats on the international market that year and quickly showed it, putting up a .337/.445/.538 line in 128 plate appearances for the DSL Red Sox in 2014, hitting three home runs in 28 games (a homer total that was second on the team despite his only being in the league for half the season). He received a quick promotion to the GCL, where he hit .312/.374/.484 in 174 plate appearances. He hit four more home runs in Florida, leading the GCL Sox in that category.

Devers made his full-season debut in 2015 with Greenville, hitting .288/.329/.443 with 11 home runs in 508 plate appearances. In 2016 with Salem, he hit .282/.335/.443 with 11 more home runs in 546 plate appearances. Among the youngest players in the league at both levels, he faced periods of extended struggles in both seasons, but showed impressive poise and maturity in making adjustments and breaking out of his slumps.

Devers started the 2017 season in Portland, where he really started to tap into his power potential, hitting .300/.369/.575 with 18 home runs in 320 plate appearances. Following appearances in the MLB Futures Game and Eastern League All Star Game, Devers was promoted to Pawtucket on July 14. In nine games with Pawtucket, he hit .400/.447/.600 with two home runs.

There has been a lot of talk about Devers’ physical appearance since he signed, but at this point, that should not be of great concern. He will always have to work to maintain his body, as it is on the soft side, but although he may not have an impressive physique, he is not out of shape. Devers is listed at 6-foot-0, 195 pounds, and is probably is a little heavier than that. He is plenty agile even at that size, and his body will likely continue to transform as he matures. It is tough to project where his body will be when he reaches his mid-to-late 20s, but as long as he does a good job maintaining it, it shouldn’t impact his play, especially since speed is not a major part of his game.

Devers starts with a slightly open stance with his hands high and active. He has a simple swing, utilizing a short, quick leg lift most of the time, occasionally using a toe tap. He has extremely quick hands and plus bat speed, and really clears his hips, getting his lower half into his swing. We like to use the phrase “controlled violence” to describe his swing, as there is a lot of effort in it, but he doesn’t get out of control when he’s hitting well and still can get the bat head to the ball. Because of his advanced feel for hit and hand-eye coordination, he doesn’t swing and miss as much as you would expect given his profile. 

Devers has shown an all-fields approach that will serve him well at the major league level. He can cover the entire plate and is willing to go the other way if the pitcher pitches him away. Early in the year, he was getting shifted in Portland and showed the ability to keep his weight back and hit the ball left field, beating the shift. Even at his extremely young age, Devers has also shown advanced knowledge of the strike zone, maintaining a walk rate of around 8% and strikeout rate of around 17% for his career. 
This year, Devers has really tapped into his plus-plus raw power and started to translate it into in-game power. The ball really jumps off his bat when he gets a hold of it. Though he doesn’t have a prototypical power hitter’s swing or build, his bat speed and ability to get his whole body into his swing allow him to drive the ball to all fields. Right now his power is primarily to the pull side, but he has hit a few opposite field home runs this year as well. Devers will likely continue to get stronger as he matures and has the potential to hit 25-plus home runs a year. 
There have been a lot of questions about Devers’ ability to play third base since he signed. When you see him live, he is surprisingly agile for his size. He has soft hands and surprisingly good footwork, though he can get a bit lazy at times with his fundamentals and not get in front of a ball or set his feet on a throw. He has shown average range to both sides and has at least a plus arm. Devers is able to make all the throws at third, both from deep behind the base and while charging the ball with his momentum carrying him towards home plate. Though he doesn’t project as an impact defender, Devers should develop into at least an average third baseman long-term and be able to stick there for the foreseeable future. 

At his peak, Devers projects as a first-division regular, capable of being a plus hitter for average and power and playing an average-to-better third base. His ceiling is even higher than that, which with his projection justifies his current position as a consensus top-10 prospect in the game. His offensive ability is ahead of his defense right now, but both project to continue improving as he matures—which is to be expected from a 20-year-old playing at such age-advanced levels.

As for this season, he could have some trouble, at least initially. Devers has some bad habits that major league pitchers will look to exploit in a way Double-A (and for a week, Triple-A) pitching was unable to. Most likely to be exploited is his propensity to hunt fastballs and get aggressive early in the count, leaving him susceptible to off-speed pitches. Devers likes to attack pitches he thinks he can hit, but often a well-sequenced, good breaking ball can catch him off-balance and out in front. Devers will also go through stretches where he will get pull-happy and roll over a lot of balls to the right side. There are also some questions remaining about Devers’ defense. He has made four errors in nine games in Pawtucket, and the pace of play the major league level could give him some trouble at third. 

Devers could definitely use some more time in the minors to work on both sides of his game, but clearly the Red Sox believe the upgrade he can provide at no cost to them is greater than what they could reasonably acquire on the trade market—for now. At the very least, given the lack of offensive production the Red Sox have received at the position—one of four, by the way, in which the Red Sox rank in the bottom five in baseball in bWAR (the others being catcher, first base, and designated hitter)—even if Devers can hit .250 with some power and make the basic plays at third, that will be an upgrade and could provide a much needed jolt for a struggling lineup. 

Photo credits: Rafael Devers by Kelly O'Connor

Ian Cundall is Director of Scouting for SoxProspects.com. Follow him on Twitter @IanCundall

SoxProspects.com Executive Editor Chris Hatfield also contributed to this report. Follow him on Twitter @SPChrisHatfield