FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Who will the face of the Red Sox be in a post-Mookie Betts world?
It might be too soon to definitively say.
But it’s not too soon to enter the cherubic face -- and huge bat -- of Rafael Devers as the overwhelming favorite to ascend to that position.
The 23-year-old, who lights up Red Sox Nation with his laser-beam hits, dramatic facial expressions and pure joy for the game, is entering his fourth season (third full) as the starting third baseman in Boston.
“He’s fun. He’s like my little brother,” said Red Sox slugger J.D. Martinez. “He's a little kid. Exactly how he looks like is how he is. He’s always wondering what is going on, talking to himself in the box. He’s just funny. He’s one of those people who is just harmless. He’s fun to be around.
After staying home to witness the birth of his second daughter last week, Devers made his Grapefruit League debut Friday against the Twins, going 0-for-2 in a 4-1 loss. With Devers back in the daily mix, things are instantly more joyful in Red Sox land.
“His personality is huge,” said Red Sox interim manager Ron Roenicke. “He’s another one of those guys like [Xander Bogaerts], he’s just in a good mood every day. He’s smiling all the time. I think probably people get a kick out of all his facial expressions that happen all through the game. But he really is a pleasure to be around.”
And it was Roenicke’s pleasure to put Devers into the No. 2 spot in his batting order on Friday.
Coincidence or not, Devers soared as a slugger around the same time former manager Alex Cora installed him into that slot in June of last season.
The days of putting a hit-and-run specialist in the second slot of the order are as long gone as many of the home runs Devers figures to hit this season.
“Did we not just know numbers back then? I don’t know,” said Roenicke. “It’s kind of strange, I was in Anaheim [as a coach] and you’ve got Mike Trout and they’re talking about putting him second in the lineup.
“Whether it’s five, 10 years ago, you would have never thought of putting Mike Trout second. The numbers prove I guess, that the two spot is huge in your lineup and creating runs. I know it gives you whatever it is, extra at-bats, whether it’s 20, 30 extra at-bats in a season by being second versus third. You want him up there more often so I guess that’s the new way to do it.”
In this day and age, the No. 2 hitter needs to mash, and that’s likely why Roenicke will keep Devers there.
“We’ll see how it plays out,” said Roenicke. “I think the way he’s become consistent with what he does, I think second makes sense. If [Andrew Benintendi] continues to look like he’s gonna lead off, then probably second.”
That all sounds good to Devers.
“Obviously I had a lot of success batting in the two-hole last year and it’s not going to change my approach either way,” said Devers. “I’m still going to do what I have to do -- go out there and work hard and obviously my preference would be to bat second.”
If the Red Sox had qualified for the postseason last year, Devers’ regular season would have gone down in franchise lore. Instead, it was a happy footnote from a disappointing summer of baseball in Boston.
In many ways, it was the summer of Devers, who slashed .311/.361/.555 with 54 doubles, 201 hits, 32 homers and 115 RBIs. His 90 extra-base hits and 359 total bases led the Majors.
It wouldn’t be possible to top that, would it? Well, when you are 23 years old, the possibilities seem endless.
“The only thing I focus on, like I said before, is just to stay healthy, and I feel like I can put up even better numbers than I did last year,” Devers said. “As long as I’m healthy, I feel like I’ll be able to produce.”
The Red Sox are counting on it.
“He’s just got great talent,” Martinez said. “Great hands at the plate. He’s got a knack for putting the barrel on the ball. You can’t teach that.”
Lefty Eduardo Rodriguez, coming off a breakout season in which he won 19 games, makes his first Grapefruit League start in Saturday's home game against the Yankees at 1:05 p.m. -- the first of two matchups between the rivals this spring. Rodriguez tuned up with a simulated start against teammates Devers and Xander Bogaerts a few days ago. The game can be streamed on MLB.TV and Gameday Audio.