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Rafael Devers and the challenges of developing on a contender

It’s a weird spot for the young third baseman

Toronto Blue Jays v Boston Red Sox Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

I think one of the worst parts about the baseball season is that, with its everyday nature, the amazing becomes routine. The Red Sox offense is straight-up bananas, but it’s so easy to take that fact for granted because we see it every day. The expectation is for them to put up a whole bunch of runs every night, and while that’s a fair expectation it also makes it easy to forget that this group has been pretty much perfect this year. Sure, it hasn’t always been balanced and the bottom of the lineup has gone through rough stretches in 2018, but as a whole they have produced more than our wildest dreams, even considering just about all of us were expecting a fair amount of regression back towards the mean after a down 2017.

That being said, there is one problem that was admittedly put in the spotlight on Wednesday and probably isn’t as big of a deal as it was made out to be in the loss against Philadelphia. Rafael Devers is in a very strange spot right now, stuck between trying to help a team that is clearly trying to win right now and also trying to continue his development as a very young player working towards being a good long-term major leaguer. It’s a balance that is more difficult to strike than it may seem from the outside, and both the player and the team have a role to play here.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Baltimore Orioles Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

If we’re being honest with ourselves, the expectations for Devers were probably too high coming into the season. Granted, that’s not to say they weren’t understandable. Devers showed real poise, along with talent, upon being called up in 2017 and it was totally reasonable to expect him to avoid the sophomore slump. That being said, we had just seen Andrew Benintendi struggle (relative to expectations) in his sophomore season, and he was a more polished player than Devers is now. It can be easy to forget, but Devers is still only 21 years old and he was rushed to the majors in order to fill a black hole on last year’s roster. If the Red Sox had another third base option a season ago, it’s not inconceivable to imagine Devers still being in the minors, or at least just having been called up. I don’t think we’d think too much about it if he hadn’t reached the majors at this point in his career.

But, that’s not the case and he is a major-league player now. As we’ve seen all year, there is a reason he is up right now and there is a reason so many have high expectations for him, but there have also been plenty of reminders of his age. At the plate, Devers has been a rollercoaster ride all year, with extreme highs and low lows. When he is at his best, we see a future star that can hit in the middle of this lineup for the next decade and become a multiple-time All-Star. He uses the whole field, he’s aggressive but only on pitchers against which he should be aggressive, and his power is extremely legit. When he’s at his worst, we see a 21-year-old who is younger than about half of the Low-A Spinners roster! He can’t lay off breaking balls, he gets pull-happy and he pops up a disproportionate amount of pitches. It can be ugly to watch when he’s really off his game.

The offense isn’t even the worst part of his game when he’s going poorly, either. I maintain that Devers has the tool to be a fine, though never great, defensive third baseman, but there’s no doubt that he has had some trouble this year. He has made 21 errors at the hot corner this year, and it seems like every time he has to make a throw across the diamond it’s possible that the ball ends up on the wrong side of the first base line. He does have the arm strength to make these throws and we’ve seen it enough to know it can be there on a consistent basis, but he just messes up too often. Additionally, he rushes some plays and has trouble deciding when to charge and when to hang back. Most of these things will improve with experience and are another reminder that we’re watching a player who could feasibly be developing in the minors right now.

Really, I don’t have much of a point to make here beyond saying the Red Sox are stuck between a rock and a hard place right now. The good news is that Devers is not a focal point of this offense, and on most days will be the seventh or eighth best hitter in the lineup. That should take some pressure off his shoulders. Beyond that, though, they kind of have to let him sink or swim right now. There have been some calls to send him down to Pawtucket, and while I see the logic I don’t think there’s much point to that now. There are only a few weeks left in the Triple-A season, and sending Devers down for that short of time probably won’t do much but discourage the young player.

I think he has to stay in the majors, and I think he has to play the majority of the time. Eduardo Núñez will and should get a decent amount of playing time here, but I think everyone would acknowledge that the best version of this team includes Devers at third base playing at his best and Núñez on the bench. It’s just a matter of giving a still-developing player the leeway to make mistakes and get into a groove. We’ve seen it happen before, but it’s easier said than done with such a young, unpolished player on a team with World Series aspirations.