Featured Photo: Rafael Devers, 3B, Red Sox
(Photo courtesy of 365digitalphotography.com)
Just seven weeks into the season, I’ve already had the pleasure of seeing the Double-A Portland Sea Dogs come through Trenton to play the Thunder in the Eastern League twice. Both series were played in unseasonably warm and, in fact, flat-out great playing conditions for the region. While both rosters have their share of talent to highlight through report-writing and analysis, Rafael Devers (3B, Red Sox), as one of the top prospects within the Red Sox’ system, was an obvious candidate on which to focus my attention.
In fact, Devers is so well thought of within the Boston front office that the Red Sox opted to part with 2B/3B prospect Yoan Moncada as the centerpiece in the blockbuster offseason trade with the White Sox for lefty ace Chris Sale instead of including Devers. (As detailed by Alex Speier of the Boston Globe here.)
It would have been easy enough to write up Devers based on my views over the three-game set versus Trenton at the end of April, because he performed well in game action (5-for-12 on the weekend, and making the routine plays at third base), he worked hard on his infield drills with manager Carlos Febles, and he put on a BP show. In fact, over the course of the weekend, Devers’ BP sessions – with an all-fields approach, showing off his 60-to-65 grade raw power that made waste of a typical early-April, 20-mph wind blowing straight in from center field – quickly ranked as one of the best I had seen since I saw Clint Frazier (LF, Yankees) tear it up with Akron last summer.
Rather than working within the constraints of a formal report or player spotlight, however, I decided to a go in a different direction and go longform, not only because Devers is a special player – still just 20 years old and performing as one of the top third baseman in Double-A this year despite being 4.2 years younger than the league-average player age – but also because he is being coached by Febles, who is widely regarded as one of the best infield instructors in professional baseball.
There is a correlation between Devers’ work ethic and willingness to refine his skills at third base, and Febles’ expertise and passion for teaching that is molding Devers from an average third baseman into a future above-average to plus major league defender. But before we jump into that, the 411 on Devers.
The Red Sox signed Devers as a 16-year-old free agent on August 9, 2013. After a year in the Rookie-level Dominican Summer League in 2014, he got his first taste of full-season action at Class A Greenville in the South Atlantic League, where he was a run-producing machine, with 50 extra-base hits, including 11 home runs and 70 RBIs, while slashing .288/.329/.443.
In 2016, as a 19-year-old in High A, Devers essentially repeated his 2015 Class A production, slashing .282/.335/.443 with 11 home runs, 71 RBIs and 40 extra base hits despite playing at 3.5 years younger than the league-average age. He showed some ability to work deep into counts, drawing his share of walks (7%), and whiffing at a moderate 17% clip. Despite 19 errors and a .960 fielding percentage, the raw tools proved to be there to carry the position – particularly his arm strength, which allowed him on multiple occasions to recover and complete the play on booted balls.
While he is listed at 195 pounds, Devers looks to be playing closer to a solid 210 pounds at present. Devers has a stocky build, a thick lower half, and some extra weight present at the beltline, it’s offset by some added upper body strength developed during the offseason. Even with the added bulk, there still appears to be room for further projection given his young age, but hopefully not too much more. While the added heft may not harm the big-time hit tool, it could ultimately affect his overall agility, and impact his future at third base if he doesn’t manage his conditioning closely.
The Hit Tool
Devers’ hit tool is unquestionably a plus grade overall, and it will be punching his ticket to the big leagues soon enough. I see room for projection to a 65 grade as he matures, because of his high baseball IQ, and his ability to make adjustments to the advanced arms of the Eastern League at such a young age. When asked about the hit tool, Febles said that the progress he sees in Devers is that he is “making adjustments at the plate from pitch-to-pitch now instead of at-bat to at-bat, or game-to-game,” which is pretty high praise for such a young player.
When I first saw Devers in late April, he was still introducing himself to the Eastern League, and i his first pass through the league, he raked .333/.403/.604. Now going through the league one month later for the second time in my May 19 view, it’s clear that pitchers have built a book on Devers, and the age-old game of ‘adjusting to the adjustments’ is going to play out for the remainder of his time at this level, and his ability to maintain his numbers for the second half of the season will be a good indicator of his growth as a hitter. Here’s a look at his BP and infield work from early April:
As for the swing itself, Devers shows quiet pre-pitch actions and hands before unleashing plus to double-plus bat speed through the zone with balance and fast hands that keeps the barrel on plane well. His swing has a slight uppercut barrel exit that generates big-time backspin carry helping him to carry the fence, although the majority of his present over-the-fence pop is to RF/RCF.
“Devers can hit it out the park to all fields at any time,” Febles said. “It’s hard to find guys like that.”
One veteran American League scout I spoke with Friday night thinks the hit tool is ready for the big leagues right now.
“They could slot him fifth in the order and he’d carry the spot tomorrow if there was room for him up there,” the scout noted.
Devers can still get overly aggressive at the plate though the swing-and-miss is not out of line. I expect some maturity in Devers’ plate discipline to come, and his approach to become more fully formed sooner rather than later. He is making pitch-to-pitch adjustments and showing consistent production, although he’s prone to some expansion of the strike zone at times and had some bad-ball contact in my five views. Devers’ pitch recognition still needs some polish, but that should also develop as his pro at-bat count rises, and as he settles into his rapidly maturing approach. He’ll start waiting for better pitches to drive, work deeper into counts, and finish off as a polished plus hitter with plus-to-double plus in-game power potential.
Through his first 202 plate appearances this season, Devers is slashing .308/.371/.544 with 10 home runs, 11 doubles, and 33 RBIs, with a 39:19 SO:BB rate (19%, and 9% rates, respectively, with the walk rate trending up from his 7% rate in 2016). He’s also just now breaking out of a recent 10-game snide – a 7-for-41, 10-game stretch from 5/18-5/29 – by re-booting with a 10-for-19 run, including two homers, through his last five games (thru 6/3/17). Adjusting to the adjustments indeed. Here’s a look at his BP and in-game at-bats from May 19:
An Odd Comp? How Does Devers Compare to Andrew Benintendi as a Prospect?
The first player I thought of as a comp to Devers from a swing-mechanic standpoint was actually to a Sea Dog from last year, Andrew Benintendi (OF, Red Sox). In my 2016 views of Benintendi, he also showed the same ability to spray the ball to all fields, though with Benintendi there was some added pull-side pop evident when comparing the two players at the same minor league levels (Devers from 2016-2017 at 19-20 years old, and Benintendi from 2015-2016 at 20-21 years old, both spray charts of extra-base hit locations courtesy of the great folks at mlbfarm.com). Here’s a look at Benintendi for comparison, from his visit to Trenton on July 17, 2017:
Devers’ mechanical checkpoints took on several similarities to Benintendi’s – slightly open but generally squared when he plants, wide spread of the feet, a slight leg lift timing mechanism, quiet hands at the shoulders in load, a soft left side, limited pre-swing movement and smooth actions through the hitting zone. Both hitters are coming through the zone on the same plane. With a thicker build and stronger lower-half base to build from, Devers is simply quicker through the zone than Benintendi. He’s got faster hands and higher velo barrel exit, and there’s slightly more finish to Devers’ swing versus Benintendi’s.
So while there are mechanical similarities, the added bat speed and more refined finish seem to point to the ultimate offensive outcomes separating as Devers reaches maturity, and it’s the bat speed that’s the real difference between the two. Devers’ more than full-grade’s worth of raw pop (60/65 present/future vs. Benintendi’s 50/55) is attributable to faster hands and whip through the zone than Benintendi, along with his higher-velo barrel exit speed to grade out with plus or better in-game power potential, and perhaps a lighter, but still all-star-caliber and plus-graded, .280-to-.290 average and .350-to-360 on-base percentage.
Benintendi shows smoother, calmer actions, keeping his hands back and showing some patience before getting through the zone with average to above-average bat speed that should be good for a .310 average and 15-20 home runs per year (that may be light, given the short right-field ‘Pesky Pole’ of his Fenway Park home turf). Benintendi is generating more consistent contact by showing solid plate discipline and keeping the barrel in the zone longer, making him more prepared to hit the assortment of big league cheese that comes his way more consistently.
2080 Baseball’s Ted Lekas, a 29-yer veteran scout formerly with the Orioles and Blue Jays, also praised Devers’ hit tool, saying that “if I had the choice of which swing that I’d take today between Devers and Benintendi, I’d take Devers. He has plus power potential to all fields, and the ball really jumps off the bat.”
MLB Comparisons That Suggest Special Players in Both Devers and Benintendi
Febles agreed that the mechanical checkpoints are similar, but distinguished them with some rather lofty comparisons, saying that Devers showed more “violence and juice” in his swing, though the plane and mechanics take on some similarity. Febles compared Devers’ overall hit tool to that of David Ortiz (1B/DH, Twins, Red Sox, 1997-2016) or Carlos Delgado (1B, Blue Jays, Marlins, Mets, 1993-2009,) whereas Benintendi’s swing reminded him more of Adrian Gonzales (1B, Dodgers) or Rafael Palmiero (1B, Cubs, Orioles, Rangers, 1986-2005) in their ability to generate consistent hard contact and sneaky power with silky-smooth strokes.
I also asked Febles about whether the similarities between the swings of Devers and Benintendi were simply characteristics of solid, athletic mechanics, or whether there is an organizational philosophy behind certain mechanics that may be taught as soon as a player is signed or drafted into the Sox’ farm system. Though both players worked with hitting coach Lee May, Jr. extensively, Febles says the Red Sox’ organizational philosophy is geared towards maximizing individual tools versus trying develop a certain type of swing, and that each player brings different tools as a pro. In short, both are special players who happen to have some similarities in their mechanics.
“Each swing has its own individual strengths, and we work with those strengths, and pass along reports as players move up the system to be sure there is consistency to their individual development as a hitter,” he said. “We work with the swings and abilities the players have [versus an organizational principle being in place].”
Developing the Glove, and the Instructional Methods of Carlos Febles
Defense may be the sole remaining reason that Devers is still sitting at the Double-A level. He just isn’t quite ready to be an everyday defender in the big leagues. The hope is that with more time under Febles’ tutelage, that will change.
I first saw Febles on the field during a 10-day scouting excursion at the 2016 Arizona Fall League. My main takeaway from the trip was not of a particular player. Instead, it was seeing Febles, who managed the Surprise Saguaros, work extensively with both Yoan Moncada and Mauricio Dubon (SS, Brewers) in 9:30 am sessions each day I was in Surprise.
For Febles, a former six-year MLB middle infielder with the Kansas City Royals from 1998-2003, infield instruction is the part of the job he takes most pride in, and he worked Moncada and Dubon on basic fundamentals (click here to see how basic Febles’ footwork drills actually were). Febles looks for perfection, and he shows an uncanny patience in teaching the craft. If the players hit their training goals in 15 minutes with perfect reps, they were done; if it took an hour to reach those goals, then they’d spend an hour on the drills. Febles works with his players so that consistency and fundamental decision-making become second nature in game situations. Febles is employing this same approach when working with Devers.
“The game is about patience and I am big on ‘process’,” Febles states. “Why? To catch the ball, pre-pitch preparation is where it’s at. Getting in a good low position with a solid base that allows you to move either way without coming up, and being to react and make plays. A player fielder need to be able to read the ball off the bat the same way a batter reads the ball coming out of the pitchers hand, and that’s what we are working with Raf on this year.”
So how is Devers developing at third base? After watching him over the course of two series in Trenton, both in infield work and in games, he is definitely making solid progress. My initial notes on Devers in April were that he reached everything hit his way with average lateral movement, but he struggled setting to throw after the ball reached the glove, leading to some extra time to unleash the arm, and the overall footwork appeared plodding at times. The delay in positioning to get rid of the ball doesn’t kill a defensive profile necessarily, particularly with a player like Devers, who has plus to double-plus graded arm strength, with carry and accuracy coming out of a typical third-sacker’s short arm circle and snap-quick arm action.
Even with the plus arm, issues with positioning and footwork can eat into a defender’s profile, particularly at the highest level, where the speed of the game increases exponentially. Fortunately for Devers, his positioning has been an area of improvement for Devers that, in my talk with Febles over the weekend, the manager is pleased with at this point in the season.
“Defenders need to beat the baseball to the spot; then you have time to react,” Febles explained. “We’re working on squaring him up to the batter and making quicker decisions with his feet and glove.”
I asked Febles to elaborate on what developmental steps are being taken to get Devers ready for the everyday grind of playing third base in the big leagues. Not surprisingly, Febles candidly fired off very specific checkpoints that he is working on with the prospect.
“He’s already advanced for 20 years old and he’s almost there, Febles said. “He just needs to continue working, and staying close to the baseball, especially to backhand side.”
Febles isn’t spending time on soft roll drills as he was with Moncada and Dubon in the AFL because he believes that this aspect of his defense is coming along well for Devers right now. Instead, the focus with Devers is on getting him to the point where the early reaction to the batted ball is second nature, so most of the work is with the fungo to get him beating the ball to the spot, which is at the root of his teaching philosophy. Febles is reinforcing the importance of consistently squaring up to the batter in a low, ready position to keep Devers’ eye level down at the ball’s level to improve reads off the barrel; dropping his left foot back on grounders hit at him or to his left to help clear room for more glove work and range of motion; and on back-handers down the line, to make quicker decisions to go to the backhand so that the he receives the ball deeper in his body to trigger a quicker transfer and release.
“We’re helping him to make quicker decisions and improve his footwork, moving to the backhand in particular, so he’s not reaching for balls, and getting rid of the ball quicker,” Febles said. “For 20 years old, He’s picking it up pretty quick.”
How does it play out in daily infield work? Here is a sampling from my view on May 19 and take particular note of his left foot dropping back as a first reaction to balls hit at him – a real-time demonstration of Febles’ instruction being put to use – to give his glove some more range of motion.
Those principles have been evident in all five of my views of Devers’ infield work this year, and Febles take a very hands-on approach to the work, using his fungo as a teacher’s pointer, forcing Devers into certain positions by tapping at his hips, shoulders, and hat, and physically showing Devers what he wants to see when fielding balls hit to both sides. For his part, Devers is showing the work ethic to improve in spades, and Febles is showing his trademark instructor’s patience to teach the ‘process’.
So knowing all of this now, again, the big question: is it working? From what I have seen from Devers both in-game and during his session with Febles, my answer is yes. Devers should have a floor of a 55-grade defender at maturity, and there’s a chance for to become 60-grade, plus defender given Devers’ work ethic, and the intensity that both student and teacher show in trying to get the player to master the craft. Febles saw Devers’ commitment to put the work in before the season even began, and Devers is clearly absorbing the in-season instruction he’s been given.
“I’ve been managing in the minors for seven years,” Febles, who is in his 11th season as a coach in the Red Sox’ system, and second year as Portland’s manager, said. “He’s the only player who approached me pre-season and asked to set a plan for extra work twice a week to get better. He is a special talent.”
The plus projection of the glove comes with moderate risk, as his ability to reach his plus potential and stick at third base long term will be anchored by his ability to manage his physique and keep his weight under control.
So, What Type of Player Does Devers Project to Become?
There’s obviously a lot to like with the profile, but Devers is likely to stick at Double-A for much of 2017 – the match of the player’s developmental needs and Febles’ instructional expertise is undeniable at this point. Devers’ hit tool looks major-league ready right now, although the extra reps to solidify his approach and increase his confidence at the plate won’t hurt either. But there’s little doubt he is on a path to a future in the major leagues, with a floor of a Role 60, above-average third baseman and occasional all-star, and with the ceiling of a Role 70, perennial all-star for the Red Sox at the corner if it all comes together.
When Devers gets to the big leagues is clearly going to be determined by work ethic and organizational need, but a 2018 arrival in Boston seems certain at this point, especially if the hit tool continues to mature and the defense is solidified, something that Febles is committed to making happen. Would the Red Sox be so bold as to give him a call-up, ala Benintendi last year, straight from Double-A? Febles was quick to point out with a straight face that “that’s for others to decide”, but Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski has made no secret of his willingness to promote guys straight from the Double-A level if he thinks they are ready (hat-tip to Matt Dolloff of CBS Boston for the piece).
Devers’ biggest coaching asset is Febles at this point. It wouldn’t be a stretch to see him called up when rosters expand in September as a reward for a season’s worth of dedicated hard work refining his craft – while also signaling to Red Sox fans that the clubs’ future at third base is bright.