Welcome to BP Boston’s Roster Recap series! We continue to break down every player on Boston’s 40-man roster and many of the top prospects in order to provide a comprehensive overview of the roster’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as what we can expect moving forward. There’s no better time than the offseason to review the best (there was some best!) and worst (there was a lot of worst!) of the past year in red and navy. You can see previous editions of Roster Recap here.
So Rafael Devers might be pretty good. We got an indication of that last year, when Devers hit .322/.404/.506 between the Dominican Summer League and the Gulf Coast League as a 17-year-old. That’s when the reports started coming in. A potential plus-power, plus-hit tool combination. Impressive bat speed and pitch-recognition skills. A strong throwing arm and enough defensive potential to possibly remain at third base. There was a lot to like, and just like that, Devers became a top-100 prospect.
Fast-forward one year, and now Devers is an easy top-50 prospect, and in many circles he’s thought of even more highly.
This isn’t quite an underdog story. Devers was one of the bigger gets in the 2013 international signing period, netting $1.5 million out of the Dominican Republic. Plenty of teams were drawn to his bat, and as of now, it’s pretty easy to see why. This isn’t to say that Devers is a perfect prospect — there are some warts here — but hey, what 19-year-old does have flawless skin?
What Went Right in 2015
Most things involving Devers and a bat. The then-18-year-old hit .288/.329/.443 in Greenville, playing against competition that was, on average, 3.5 years his senior. That didn’t stop him from finishing second in the entire Sally in doubles and total bases. Devers struck out in just 16.5% of his plate appearances, posted a .282 TAv and enjoyed an exceptionally strong finish to the year, hitting .425/.444/.550 over his final 10 games.
In BP’s 2016 Red Sox top-10 list, Chris Crawford gave Devers a 55-grade hit tool and a 60-grade power tool, as well as a 60-arm that should forgive some of his deficiencies at third base. That’s an enticing package of tools to build a prospect around, and it’s why Devers ranked in at no. 35 on BP’s Top 101 and at no. 3 on Boston’s list. Quite frankly, compared to some other sources, it’s a little conservative. Keith Law ranked Devers as the no. 7 prospect in baseball. MLB.com had him at no. 13. SoxProspects.com has Devers as the second-best prospect in the system, and gives him a potential role-70 future.
Basically, everyone agrees that Devers can really hit for power, most people think he can really hit for average and some people think he can stick at third base. While he’s not uber athletic, Devers has a rocket arm and decent feel for the position, and while he’ll never be Adrian Beltre out there, he could at least start his career at third base if he doesn’t fill out too much. You can understand why he generates so much excitement.
What Went Wrong in 2015
Not a ton, but we can nitpick for sure. Devers’ walk rate fell precipitously, declining from ~11% in 2014 to just 4.7% last season. That’s not totally abnormal as young players move up the rung, but considering it was accompanied by an increase in strikeouts (16.5%) and a decline in ISO (.156), it’s not an overall positive trend. The catch here, of course, is that Devers’ strikeout rate is perfectly acceptable, if not above average, for a power hitter, and his ISO is solid for a then-18-year-old in the Sally.
Still, that shift led Law to speculate that Devers might end up being a high-average but moderate OBP hitter, and Crawford noted length in Devers’ swing that could lead to more swing-and-miss down the line. As long as that doesn’t prevent Devers from tapping into his plus natural power, it won’t matter a ton, but this all goes to say that Devers isn’t a flawless specimen or a sure thing.
Also, while it’s not a forgone conclusion that Devers will need to move across the diamond, it very much remains a possibility. Devers has already filled out to the point where speed isn’t a part of his game, and while he’s got decent reaction time at third base he could grow to the point where he’s not a viable option there. He’ll need to stay on top of conditioning to ensure that doesn’t happen, as he’d likely be eminently playable but not altogether special at first base.
Outlook for 2016/MLB ETA
SoxProspects.com projects Devers to start the year in High-A Salem, and that makes quite a bit of sense given the nonstop success he’s enjoyed to this point in his career. The jump from the South Atlantic League to the Carolina League is a significant one, and Devers should be tested adequately there as a 19-year-old. It’s an aggressive assignment, and if Devers doesn’t succeed at first, you shouldn’t freak out.
What should we watch for from Devers’ 2016 season? First, it would be nice to see his approach slide closer to what we saw in 2014, where Devers walked at a higher rate. Next, let’s root for more of Devers’ natural power to shine through as he gets older and builds more strength. And finally, let’s really pull for defensive improvement, specifically when it comes to body type and reaction time. No one doubts Devers’ arm, and there are plenty of positive reports about Devers’ footwork, too.
It’s tough to peg an ETA for Devers. If he crushes the ball in Salem for the the first two-thirds of the season, he could finish the year in Portland, much like Manny Margot did in 2015. That would put him on track for a late-2017/mid-2018 debut. If Devers’ progress is stayed by his aggressive assignment, we could be looking at an MLB ETA of closer to 2019 or 2020, at which point the Dominican will debut at the ripe old age of … 22 or 23.
When that counts as the worst-case scenario (other than abject failure) for a prospect, you know he’s pretty good.
Photo by Kelly O’Connor/www.sittingstill.smugmug.com