The Rafael Devers Conundrum

With Mookie Betts no longer in the picture, Rafael Devers becomes one of the most important pieces in this franchise's short-term and long-term plans. Personally, I would argue that he is Boston's one and only truly "untouchable" player, and that he is the future face of our franchise. Since being called up to the majors, he has held down the hot corner with mixed results on defense, despite his superb offensive production. After finishing 2nd in all of MLB in errors (while playing only 116 games at third base) during the 2018 season, he showed improvements last year that inspired confidence in Red Sox fans and management alike. At the age of 22, he'd appeared to have turned a corner. However, now there are reports that his former defensive woes have been resurfacing in Summer Camp. Clearly, the left handed bat isn't going anywhere in terms of the lineup card, but should Ron Roenicke consider a new home for him on the diamond? Let me state my case.

When Devers made his 2017 debut, the team was desperate at third after finally cutting ties with Pablo Sandoval. Prior to long overdue dismissal of the most regrettable signing in Red Sox history, Dave Dombrowski had shipped Plan B, Travis Shaw, to Milwaukee in the offseason as part of the Tyler Thornburg trade. A 20-year-old Devers had yet to play his first game at Double-A before the 2017 season began, but John Ferrell and the Red Sox didn't have any other options in the middle of a playoff race. To the surprise of many, the youngster held his own (at least at the plate) and never gave up the job.

The following year would be his first full season at the major league level and new manager Alex Cora wasn't going to deploy a developing young third baseman for 130+ games. His strategy ultimately worked; who can argue with a World Series championship? Still, the performance Devers displayed on defense left a lot to be desired. At the time, the best secondary option at 3B was Eduardo Nunez, until he was DFAed, at which point backup 3B became a carousel led by Brock Holt, featuring guest appearances by Brandon Phillips, Tzu-Wei Lin, Blake Swihart, and even Christian Vazquez.

Then in 2019, while the pitching staff fell apart and the Red Sox failed to miss the playoffs, ending a streak of 3 straight division titles, the biggest questions from 2018 surrounding Devers seemingly disappeared. His defense dramatically improved and third base suddenly appeared to be a position of strength. So much so that when top prospect Michael Chavis was ready to face major league competition, the organization shifted him from his original position (3B) to second base and even some first base in order to keep Devers penciled in at third. However, one good season isn't enough to convince me that Devers completely evolved from an error machine into a Gold Glove caliber defender, and the rumors that he's maybe regressed are enough to set off alarms from my perspective.

Unlike the 2017 season when 3B was a gaping hole before Devers arrived, the Red Sox now have another ML caliber bat with plenty of experience (albeit minor league experience) holding down the hot corner. They also have a highly touted prospect named Bobby Dalbec who plays primarily third base and won the organization's Minor League Defensive Player of the Year Award in 2018 - not just for third base, but for all positions - and he should be ready to debut this season. The former college pitcher has the throwing arm and quick reflexes to excel at the position he's been playing since he was drafted, and yet he's spent the last year getting acclimated to playing first base. Why? So as not to displace the current third baseman, of course.

Does it really have to be this way, though? Our farm system has several needs, but corner infield - particularly third base - is viewed as a strength, at least on paper. Meanwhile, Mitch Moreland was brought back for one more encore, but he's not exactly the kind of guy you build around. The Blue Jays just took their premier young slugger and moved him from 3rd to 1st for the sake of both the player's future and the team's defense. Perhaps the Red Sox would be wise to follow suit and put Devers at first, making room for Chavis and/or Dalbec at third, where they'd likely be more comfortable.

But wait, says the prospect guru reading this, What about top prospect Triston Casas? Surely you can't block his path to the majors by putting an established young star in front of him. To address that concern, I don't think moving Devers to first base now will cause a problem down the road. Casas has only played 2 games at the Class Advanced-A Carolina League level. He will turn 21 this upcoming January, and the fact that his name was left off the 60-name player pool speaks volumes about how far away from the Majors he is, realistically speaking. Casas probably doesn't make his Boston debut until the second half of 2022 at the earliest. That would also be the final year of J.D. Martinez's contract, if he doesn't opt out before then. Assuming Casas blossoms into a surefire stud at first base between now and then, Devers can inherit the DH role when the time comes, removing his glove from the equation entirely.