Wednesday, November 29

Why Red Sox third baseman Rafael Devers seems poised for a monster season – The Boston Globe

Devers did none of those things.

As he lunged forward, barrel met ball about 2 feet in front of the plate — almost at the front of the batter’s box. The ball soared down the right-field line, inside the foul pole, and well over the fence, one of six homers Devers hit in 32 plate appearances over a spring in which he posted an eye-popping .370/.438/1.074 line.

Spring numbers mean nothing. Still, spring training can offer glimpses of change in players — swing alterations, differences in a pitch mix, improvements in velocity. For Devers, there was a discernible difference in comportment, a dazzling talent who is fully aware of what he might be able to do.

“He’s let his personality come out,” remarked Red Sox assistant general Eddie Romero, who started scouting Devers in the Dominican Republic a decade ago. “He’s not that shy kid anymore. He’s so comfortable.

“It’s been cool to see him kind of mature from a baby to a young man, and now he’s who he is.”

Everyone who spent time around Devers this spring saw a player who looks determined to establish himself as one of the game’s elite. There have been times when Devers approached spring training as an opportunity to work himself into shape. That was not his outlook when the lockout ended this year.

“For me, the season already started,” said Devers, 25, through translator Carlos Villoria Benitez. “I came ready for this and it doesn’t matter if it’s spring training or the regular season. I’m ready for the long term.”

Commitment to game, team

The home run against Ynoa highlighted two elements about Devers.

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First, good luck to pitchers trying to game plan for a weakness. Devers can crush pitches from the bill of his helmet to the dirt, and he has grown to the point where holes that open — the relentless Astros attack on him last season with fastballs at the top of the zone comes to mind — get closed within days, or even a few at-bats.

“He has the ability to impact the ball in many quadrants,” said Romero. “He’s learned to make adjustments. He can hit velo. His approach is improved.

“He’s getting so much better at learning how he’s going to be attacked from club to club, with in-game adjustments. He’s a threat every at-bat for a big-time at-bat. You don’t leave your seat, you don’t stop watching when he’s up there, because something loud could happen.”

Also, Devers noted that his ability to stay on a pitch and drive it out of the park was a product of swinging with two hands.

That might seem insignificant, but it represented a major departure from where he finished 2021. At the end of last season, Devers played through inflammation in his right elbow that proved so painful he often was unable to hold onto the bat with two hands on a swing.

Starting in the final week of the season, Devers’s right arm often proved useless, resulting in frequent drops on the follow-through. And yet in the most important games of the season, that pain did not stop Devers from a performance that might have warranted a place in Red Sox lore had the team advanced to the World Series.

In the final game of the regular season, Devers went 4 for 5 with a pair of homers as the Sox clinched a playoff berth. He remained dangerous through the postseason, hitting .296/.392/.636 while tying a Red Sox record for a postseason with five homers.

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The performance spotlighted Devers’s talent and his commitment to the game and his team.

“That was heart,” said third base coach Carlos Febles. “He wants to win and would do anything for his teammates.

“What he did last year earned a ton more respect — not just from his teammates. Players from other clubs were talking about, ‘How’s he playing like that? How many players would play like?’

“Even for us, it was painful to watch him sometimes. But he told me, ‘The doctor told me that’s not going to get worse, it’s something I can deal with, so [expletive] it. I’m going to go out and help my teammates.’ That tells you a lot about him.”

Rafael Devers jumps as he rounds first base, celebrating a three-run homer against the Rays in Game 4 of the ALDS.Matthew J Lee/Globe staff

The performance seemed to sharpen Devers’s sense of responsibility. Late last year, he blushed in the face of a suggestion that he’d emerged as a pillar of the team, deferring cornerstone status to Xander Bogaerts and J.D. Martinez.

He no longer seems to shy from such suggestions. Following the lockout, he arrived in camp ready to play at full speed, having come to an understanding about how much he means to the team.

“If I know I can play, I’ll play,” he said. “If I have a small pain or soreness, that won’t stop me from being on the field with the team.

“I love baseball. I love to play. If I can play, I’ll play. It will have to be something really serious to keep me off the field.”

Reaching the next level

The idea that Devers has matured, that another level of performance is attainable, is tantalizing to the Red Sox. After all, he already has a remarkable record of accomplishment at a young age, establishing himself as a middle-of-the-order force who has hit 112 homers, 33rd most for a player through his age-24 season.

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If there is the potential for more offense, and if the work that he’s done to improve at third base (including an offseason working out with former Gold Glover César Izturis and longtime player Gregor Blanco) yield further growth, Devers could be in the conversation about the game’s inner-circle elite.

“I think he’s going to hit for high average who can hit 40-45 homers with 120 [RBIs],” said Febles. “That’s what I see with Raffy, a guy who can do that. And defensively, he’s growing, too.

“To me, he has to be one of the most talented players in the league, not just at his position. He’s a guy who can do everything at both ends. He’s 25. I think he’s growing in front of our eyes, becoming a man. It’s kind of fascinating to see what he can do in the next five, six, seven years.”

Rafael Devers runs through infield drills ahead of Friday’s season opener.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Such proclamations come with a measure of intrigue, given that Devers is just two years from a potential foray into free agency, when he will have just concluded his age-26 season.

The Red Sox approached Devers about a contract extension this spring, but the sides never got close to common ground, and Devers does not want to engage in discussions during the season. He’s aware that his negotiating position would be strengthened if he fulfills Febles’s prophecies of a 40- to 45-homer season.

“I’ll try!” Devers beamed. “I’ll try.”

Alex Speier can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @alexspeier.

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