FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Alex Verdugo saw it as a chance to put his own spin on things; to stand out from the crowd, if you will.
As the blue-chip return in the Mookie Betts trade, Verdugo will have many eyes on him this season. Slotted to take the beloved Betts’ place in the outfield after the Feb. 10 swap with the Dodgers, the 23-year-old has some pretty big shoes to fill.
And now, Verdugo has an equally big number on his back. He recently switched from his club-assigned No. 12 to become the first player to wear No. 99 in Red Sox history.
“I looked through the roster,” Verdugo said, “and that was the one that kind of stood out the most to me.
“It’s just a number, but I think it doesn’t look too bad.”
There was a little more to it than that, though. The talented outfielder wore No. 27 during his Dodgers tenure, but those digits were retired by the Red Sox in 2000 to honor Hall of Famer Carlton Fisk. Boston, in turn, issued Verdugo No. 12, a solid consolation prize and a strong number worn by Hall of Famers Roberto Alomar and Wade Boggs.
That was precisely why Verdugo didn’t like it.
“I didn’t want to wear a number that a player had just previously worn, either,” Verdugo said Tuesday. (Brock Holt wore No. 12 for Boston for the past seven seasons.) “This is kind of a little bit unique. It’s not like everybody’s number, so it just stands out a little bit more.”
Although the largest number in baseball has gained recent popularity since Verdugo’s outfield rival Aaron Judge chose it for the Yankees, just five Major Leaguers currently sport the double nines: Verdugo, Judge, the Angels’ Keynan Middleton, the Blue Jays’ Hyun-Jin Ryu and the Mariners’ Taijuan Walker.
And then there was that one other guy…
“Manny Ramirez went from Boston to the Dodgers, and he wore 99,” said Verdugo, who admitted the number choice was also a nod to the 19-year Major Leaguer who played left field and slugged 555 career home runs.
While it’s too early to say whether Verdugo’s star will continue rise as Ramirez’s did, his outlook is certainly bright. MLB Pipeline had high praise for the left-handed hitter, who rates as a plus-plus arm with plate discipline beyond his years, in a 2018 scouting report that had him ranked as the 10th-best outfield prospect in baseball:
“One of the best pure hitting prospects in baseball, Verdugo recognizes pitches and controls the strike zone better than most players his age. He uses the whole field, repeatedly barreling balls with a quick left-handed stroke geared for line drives. Though he homered just seven times in 132 games last season, his hitting ability, bat speed and strength should translate into average power if he adds some loft to his swing.”
Verdugo appears to be on the right track. As a rookie with L.A. in 2019, he slashed .294/.342/.475 with 22 doubles and 12 home runs in 106 games. Verdugo is also enthusiastic, a trait Red Sox interim manager Ron Roenicke is eager to see in action.
“Verdugo has tremendous energy, and you’re going to see it right [away]. That’s just who he is,” Roenicke said. “He gets excited, he shows it, and I think that’s part of the reason I really look forward to him getting out there, because I think the fans are going to like him right away.”
As Verdugo begins to make an impression with the Red Sox, he is mindful of the tradition he carries on the front of his jersey. And he’s ready to add to the history of the number on the back.
“I’ve never gotten to meet Manny,” Verdugo said. “Hopefully one day I’ll finally be able to introduce myself and say hi.
“Hopefully I’ll do the number justice for him.”