FORT MYERS, Fla. -- For a reminder of what the Red Sox want him to be this year -- and what they think he will be -- Rafael Devers just had to glance over at the man who was playing third base for the Yankees in Saturday’s Grapefruit League opener
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- For a reminder of what the Red Sox want him to be this year -- and what they think he will be -- Rafael Devers just had to glance over at the man who was playing third base for the Yankees in Saturday’s Grapefruit League opener between the rivals.
More than once in the last week, Red Sox manager Alex Cora has challenged Devers to become Miguel Andújar, who finished second in the American League’s Rookie of the Year Award voting last season.
That might seem like a lot of pressure to put on the 22-year-old who is entering his second full season, but Devers lights up at the motivational tactics of his manager and vows he’ll live up to it.
“Yeah, I can do that,” Devers said of being Boston’s version of Andujar. “I think I can do that. Last year, I had a bad year, but it wasn’t really a bad year. I know I can do a lot better this year coming up.”
Andujar is a year-and-a-half older than Devers and they were both top prospects out of the Dominican Republic who could be facing off in baseball’s best rivalry for years to come.
“Yeah, just a good player, great athlete,” Devers said of Andujar before going 2-for-3 in the Red Sox's 8-5 win over the Yankees on Saturday. “I got the chance to play with him a couple of times in the Minor Leagues. Good person.”
To get a sense of what Cora is looking for from Devers, consider that Andujar had a slash line of .297/.328/.527 with 27 homers and 92 RBIs over 149 games and 573 at-bats.
Devers played in 121 games, had 450 at-bats and had a line of .240/.298/.433 with 21 homers and 66 RBIs.
To close the gap with Andujar in terms of games played and production, Devers went on the most serious offseason conditioning regiment of his life and also improved his diet. When he arrived early to Spring Training, he looked and felt noticeably better than a year ago.
“He looks good physically –- finally,” said Cora. “It’s not that he was always so out of shape that he had to show up here at 4 in the morning and run and [stop] eating. It just took him a while to get going. The baseball side of it and then conditioning. Now, he’s just in a regular program. He can work on his defense, he can work on his offense. He doesn’t have to do more to get in shape, playing shape.”
For a lineup that already has Mookie Betts, J.D. Martinez, Andrew Benintendi and Xander Bogaerts, the addition of Devers as a consistent force instead of a sporadic one would be big.
“If this kid clicks the way Andujar did with the Yankees, we’re that much better offensively,” said Cora. “The kid Andujar, he was amazing last year. He was great for New York and hopefully our 22-year-old kid can do the things he did in September and October, because that was a good player. I was very happy with the way he played in September. After that, after he went to the rehab assignment, he was another player.”
After a Minor League rehab assignment in late August and early September that was longer than it needed to be (perhaps the Red Sox were trying to make him hungrier to be back in the Major Leagues), it started to click.
Devers had some important hits in October, none bigger than a three-run shot off Justin Verlander in clinching Game 5 of the American League Championship Series at Minute Maid Park that turned a one-run lead into a four-run lead.
Every now and then, Devers flashes back to that home run. What does he see?
“Everything. I remember everything about that. It was a cool moment, because it came in the postseason, and even if it was a single or whatever, the fact that I was able to help the team in that moment was special,” Devers said.
The question that Devers can answer in the coming weeks is where he will hit in Cora’s batting order. In truth, it could be anywhere from third to seventh, depending on what the left-handed masher seems capable of.
“If this guy swings the bat the way we feel he can do it, it wouldn’t surprise me if he ends up hitting in the top [part] of the lineup or actually right behind Xander. We’ll push him,” said Cora. “I’m going to push him. ‘Would you like to hit third in this lineup?’ That was in the offseason [when I said that]. He was like, in Spanish, ‘There’s a lot of RBIs in between those two guys.’ He knows. Don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t a horrible season either [last year]. He played at 21 at this level on a team that was on an historic run and he did a good job, but we see more and he knows it.”
Ian Browne has covered the Red Sox for MLB.com since 2002. Follow him on Twitter @IanMBrowne and Facebook.