Rafael Devers, a toolsy 20-year old third baseman and Boston’s best prospect, is ready to make the jump to the majors despite his youth. Devers was signed by the Red Sox as an international free agent out of the Dominican Republic in August 2013 and quickly climbed the prospect ladder since. MLB.com currently ranks him as the 12th best prospect in baseball, with his recent performance with Boston’s AA affiliate the Portland Sea Dogs confirming that proclamation.
Devers is currently the youngest active player in AA’s Eastern league at 20 years, seven months and 29 days old. The only other younger player to accrue significant at bats in the Eastern League this season is Yankees’ stud prospect Gleyber Torres, who has since moved on to AAA. The fact that Devers is taking at bats in AA at his age is impressive in and out itself, however his other-worldly production makes his performance truly special.
Just how good has Devers been? Through 62 games and 259 plate appearances, Devers smashed 14 home runs, 44 RBIs, 33 extra-base hits (XBH) with a .564 slugging percentage. The 14 home runs are tied for 4th in the Eastern league, while the 44 RBIs are tied for 5th. The 33 XBH and .564 slugging percentage are both third. Devers sits in the 92nd percentile or higher in the following statistics: HR, HR/AB, XBH, XBH/AB, SLG, OPS, ISO, wOBA and wRC+. Quantifying performance in this manner is important, because while Red Sox and baseball fans likely know that Devers has played well, I doubt they know just how well. The one area of Devers’ game that could use some refinement is his plate discipline, however he’s roughly average across the Eastern League in BB/K ratio, which is impressive for the youngest player in the league. It’s not as if Devers is flailing away to the tune of a 30% strikeout rate, like his former Sox prospect Yoan Moncada.
Of course, just because a 20-year old is mashing in AA doesn’t mean he should automatically receive an MLB call-up. The calculus for prospect call-ups usually involves the confluence of two factors: 1) impressive performance by the prospect in the minors and 2) a team need at the major league level. While Devers’ hitting in Portland this season certainly checks the box on factor 1, Boston’s issues at third base in 2017 more than check the box on point 2.
The combination of Sandoval, Marrero, Rutledge and Hernandez combined to give Boston the worst offensive production from the third base position in the majors this season. The aggregate slash line at the third base position of .204 / .258 / .318 is absolutely horrid. OPS+ adjusts Boston’s .576 third base OPS for ballpark factors and strength of league, with a resulting mark of 53, meaning that Boston’s third base production has been 47% worse than league average this season in a context-neutral environment. In fact, Boston has received the second worst offensive production from the third base position over the last decade! If that weren’t bad enough, Red Sox third basemen committed 16 errors this season, which is tied for the league lead. All told, Boston produced a pathetic -1.2 WAR from the position to date this year, which extrapolates to -2.7 WAR over a full season. Literally anyone is a better option than the current cast of characters inhabiting the hot corner for Boston right now.
So if Devers is raking in the minors, and the Red Sox are posting generationally poor numbers at third this season, why is Rafael still stuck in AA? A cavalcade of articles temper expectations for Devers and warn that he is not ready for the big leagues due to his age. But what is that actually based on outside of lazy writing? On top of that, the Red Sox and President of Baseball Operations Dave Dombrowski showed little reluctance to promote prospects Yoan Moncada and Andrew Benitendi directly from AA to Boston last season. Moncada clearly needed more minor league seasoning, while Benitendi became an instant fixture in the Red Sox lineup. Why should Devers receive the “patient and wait” treatment?
There is nothing in Devers’ performance profile that says he isn’t ready for the majors. In fact, Devers’ 2017 results in AA make him look like a more ready candidate for MLB promotion than Moncada and Benitendi were when they received their call-ups from AA last season. Devers maintains superior HR, XBH, XBH/AB, AVG, SLG, OPS and ISO figures to both Moncada and Benitendi in AA. His wOBA and wRC+ is slightly below Moncada’s, but solidly above Benitendi’s. Benitendi, at 22 years old with a collegiate pedigree under his belt, honed a more refined approach and thus put up lower strikeouts numbers and a fantastic BB / K rate. But plate discipline is the only area where he claimed superiority over Devers. And while Moncada managed slightly better overall offensive production than Devers, he did so with an astronomical 30.9% strikeout rate that predicted inevitable issues with MLB pitching.
The notion that the Red Sox shouldn’t promote Devers because he is “too young” or “not ready” is a cop-out argument with no supporting evidence. Those who toe that line likely have Moncada-related PTSD after his 60.0% strikeout rate and 31 wRC+ in the MLB last year, however a passing glance at the AA numbers reveals that Devers’ current polish far outshines Moncada’s from last season. Moreover, there is no harm in promoting Devers for two to three weeks and playing things by ear. If he is clearly over-matched at the MLB level, send him to AAA. If he rises to the occasion, then great. Boston is not mandated to keep him in the majors for an extended period if they promote him.
The Red Sox are reportedly scouring the trade market in hopes of finding an upgrade at third base. Rumored names include well-known players like Mike Moustakas and Todd Frazier, as well as budget options such as David Freese and Trevor Plouffe. But why waste assets on acquiring a third base rental when there’s a good chance that an internal option like Devers could provide similar production? Boston should promote Devers immediately and see how he fares for several weeks. If he scuffles, then he can be sent down and Dombrowski will have runway to explore the trade market prior to the July 31st deadline.