Rafael Devers: Boston’s Rising Star

By Connor Pignatello

The Red Sox third base problem was not solved by a veteran rental. No, it was solved by a sweet-hitting 20-year-old Dominican named Rafael Devers.

But before I explain Devers’ spectacular rise, I must set the stage for his entrance.

~~July 24th~~

It’s July 24th and the Red Sox have ground to a halt. Baseball’s non-waiver trade deadline is just eight days away and nearly the entire baseball community expects the Sox to trade for Todd Frazier.

Frazier, the third baseman for the White Sox, is in the midst of the worst season of his career. He’s hitting just .210 and his contract expires at the end of the year.

The Red Sox haven’t been able to gain traction since the All-star break, going just 5-6. The Yankees, their ever-present rivals, are creeping up on them in the standings and have swooped in on a trade for Todd Frazier, even though many executives and analysts were sure the slugger would join the Red Sox.

Third base has been a huge issue for Boston, who has used eight (!) different players there. Collectively, Red Sox third basemen are slashing .227/.280/.320, marks that rank 27th, 29th, and 30th in the league, respectively. They have not only been terrible hitters, but they also lead the league in errors.

Dave Dombrowski decides to rectify the Red Sox’ third base issue by promoting top prospect Rafael Devers to the big leagues.

~~A Rafael Devers Profile~~

Rafael Devers was born on October 24th, 1996 in Sanchez, an aging port city in the Dominican Republic. He first started playing baseball at the age of five, inspired by his father, who played amateur ball. Devers grew up with baseball all around him and quickly showed immense talent.

In 2013, Devers signed with the Red Sox at just 17 years old. He was ranked as the number three international prospect in his class, and he signed with the Red Sox, his childhood favorite team, for $1.5 million. Devers entered the Red Sox organization as their 20th ranked prospect in a deep farm system.

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Upon joining the Red Sox, Devers was placed in the Dominican Summer League (DSL), a place where new international signings go to work on their skills. Devers took the DSL by storm, batting .337/.445/.538 with three home runs in 28 games. He impressed everyone, by his ability to hit for both average and power, and also by his great batting eye — Devers walked more times than he struck out.

After tearing up the Dominican League, Devers was sent to the States, where he played in the Gulf Coast League. The Gulf Coast League, or GCL, is where first-year minor league players are sent after being drafted or signed by their teams. Most of the players in the GCL have been drafted out of college or have just finished high school, meaning that at age 17, Devers was one of the youngest players in the league. Devers carved up the GCL, batting .312 with eleven doubles and four homers in 42 games.

After Devers’ wildy successful first year, he was rated as the Red Sox’ sixth best prospect, and baseball’s 99th best, all at just 18 years old. This was an incredible accomplishment, as Devers was the youngest player on Baseball America’s top 100 list that year.

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In 2015, Devers was promoted to the Red Sox’ Low-A affiliate, the Greenville Drive, where he experienced full-season ball for the first time. There, he was matched up against much older opponents, being one of just seven position players under the age of 19 in the South Atlantic League. Devers played well in Greenville too, batting .288 with 38 doubles and 11 home runs in 115 games. During the 2015 season, Devers was selected to the Futures Game, an event during All-Star weekend that showcases basbeball’s best young talent.After a season in Low-A, Devers was ranked as Boston’s second best prospect, and baseball’s 18th best. Devers jumped 81 spots on Baseball America’s top 100 in just one year, a remarkable achievement.

In 2016 Devers was promoted to the Red Sox’ High-A affiliate, the Salem Red Sox, at the age of 19. However, Devers hit a bump in the road in Salem. Amongst players much older than him, it appeared that Devers had finally met his match. In the first half of the season, he scuffled to a .233/.300/.305 line with just four home runs in 63 games.

However, Devers bounced back brilliantly after the All-Star break. He slashed an incredible .326/.367/.539, with seven home runs and eleven steals in 64 games. After this second-half breakout, Devers has not looked back in his meteoric rise to the majors.

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In 2016, Devers’ defense finally started to catch up with his offense. Early on in his career, scouts considered moving him to first base, because of his heavy build. But Devers has worked hard on his defense, and has stayed at the hot corner. In High-A, Devers led all Carolina league third basemen in fielding percentage (.960), putouts (104), and assists (258).

After his outstanding second half in High-A, Devers earned a non-roster invitation to 2017 Spring Training with the Red Sox. This was a big step up for the 20-year-old Devers, but he wasn’t ready for it, batting 3 for 22 against big league competition. Nevertheless, he earned a promotion to Double-A Portland, where he played for most of this year.

Devers was the Portland Red Sox’ standout player this year, socking 18 homers in addition to achieving an excellent .296/.366/.571 slash line. In 77 games, Devers jumped to number six in Baseball America’s most recent prospect rankings. He was also selected to participate in the MLB Futures Game for the second time.

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Devers was promoted to Triple-A on July 14th, and continued to hit for both average and power while in Pawtucket. Devers became the third youngest player ever to be promoted by the Red Sox to Triple-A, yet another reminder that he was playing extremely well for his age. The Dominican lefty hit an astounding .400 for the Pawtucket Red Sox, and he earned a promotion to the big leagues after just nine games in Triple-A.

When Devers debuted on July 25th, he was the youngest player in the major leagues, but you’d never know it. His first major league hit was a home run (!), and during his sixteen career major league games Devers has surprised everyone.

Scouting report

Devers has a very promising future, thanks to his ability to hit for both average and power. He has incredible raw power, and can spray the ball to all fields. His opposite field power is unsurpassed among players his age. For example, when Devers hit two homers against the Indians on August 14th, one was a laser into the Green Monster seats in left field, and the other was a high drive into the Red Sox bullpen in right field.

Devers also has great bat speed, and he is able to hit pitches very far, and to any part of the field. On August 13th, Devers hit a 102.8 mph pitch into the Yankees bullpen, the fastest pitch ever hit for a home run in the Statcast era.

Devers is not as polished as other recent Red Sox prospects like Andrew Benintendi, but he has a higher ceiling. I project that in his prime years he will hit around .285 with 30 home runs, 40 doubles, and five to ten stolen bases.

He has improved his defensive skills, but don’t expect him to be a Gold-Glove winning third baseman. I believe he will stay at the hot corner, as he is becoming more reliable and is improving his range. Overall, Devers projects to be an All-Star with a dependable glove and a reliable, middle-of-the-order bat.

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Conclusion

As of August 15th, Devers is hitting .339 with six home runs, incredible statistics that show his ability is way beyond his years. I don’t mean to read too closely into Devers’ 62 career at-bats, but he has a very promising future.

Pairing Devers with other young Red Sox stars like Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley jr. and Xander Bogaerts should help Boston stay at the top of the AL East for years. Devers gives Boston an entirely homegrown lineup, the dream of every major league team.

Special thanks to Baseball Reference, Baseball America, and milb.com for the statistics I used in this post.

I would also like to thank NESN.com, the New Haven Register, and SB Nation’s Minor League Ball blog.

Prospect rankings are from Baseball America

Fenway Park Photo Credit: User: (WT-shared) Jtesla16 at wts wikivoyage [CC BY-SA 1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Burning Questions for each NFC team

By Connor Pignatello

Welcome back! This post is a continuation of my previous article which detailed burning questions I had about each AFC team.

Like the AFC, some teams in the NFC are rebuilding and some are contending, but they all have at least one vital question that still needs to be answered.

I’ll also list three key players — at least one on offense and one on defense — for each team, to give you a refresher on the team’s personnel.

Here are the burning questions that each NFC team needs to answer.

NFC East

Dallas Cowboys

Key Players: Ezekiel Elliott, Sean Lee, Dak Prescott

Key Question: Can they keep up after losing significant talent in free agency?

The Cowboys were the surprise team in the NFL last year. They improved their record by nine wins after drafting Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott. However, their road to the playoffs this year will not be easy.

They lost nearly their entire secondary in free agency, as key contributors like Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, Barry Church, and J.J. Wilcox all signed deals elsewhere.

The Cowboys still have the star-power needed for a shot at the Super Bowl, but they lost many important role players this offseason.

New York Giants

Key Players: Damon Harrison, Olivier Vernon, Odell Beckham Jr.

Key Question: Who’s the answer at running back?

The Giants finished last year at 11-5, a record good enough to make the playoffs.

But even though they had a successful year, their offense ranked 26th in points scored and 25th in yards gained. Their rushing attack in particular was dreadful, ranking 29th in the league.

The Giants tried many different options at running back last year and none of them worked. Rashad Jennings was the team’s leading rusher, but he didn’t even crack 600 yards. The Giants didn’t address this problem in the early rounds of the draft, and they won’t be able to supplant Ezekiel Elliott and the Cowboys unless they improve their rushing attack.

Washington Redskins

Key Players: Kirk Cousins, Brandon Scherff, Ryan Kerrigan

Key Question: Are they going to commit to Kirk Cousins?

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The Redskins have had an awful offseason.

First, the ownership fired general manager Scot McCloughan on the first day of free agency, amid reports that he had relapsed with alcohol abuse and was drunk in the locker room. They still haven’t found a general manager, and team president Bruce Allen suggested that he might not hire one at all. (hold on–what???)

Amid all of the chaos, the Redskins franchise tagged Kirk Cousins for the second consecutive season. Washington is fortunate enough to have a top ten quarterback like Cousins, but they have failed to lock him up on a long-term deal. The Redskins need to stop playing their game of cat-and-mouse with Cousins, and either sign him to a long-term contract or let him leave.
Philadelphia Eagles

Key Players: Brandon Graham, Jason Peters, Fletcher Cox

Key Question: Is Carson Wentz ready?

Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz was maddeningly inconsistent last season, and he endured stretches where he looked like a genius and others where he looked lost and confused.

During the first three weeks of the season, Wentz seemed invincible; completing 65% of his passes for five touchdowns and no interceptions. But in a five game losing streak from weeks 10-14, Wentz completed just 60% of his passes, and threw for just four touchdowns against eight interceptions.

If Wentz can improve upon his performance from last year, the Eagles will have a shot at emerging from the basement of the NFC East.

NFC North

Green Bay Packers

Key Players: Aaron Rodgers, David Bakhtiari, Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix

Key Question: Is Ty Montgomery ready to handle full-time running back duties?

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After back-to-back disappointing years in Green Bay, Pro-Bowl running back Eddie Lacy headed for greener pastures and signed with the Seahawks in free agency. Now, wide-receiver-turned-running-back Ty Montgomery is expected to be the team’s lead back after a 77-rush cameo last season. Montgomery fared surprisingly well last year, averaging a brilliant 5.9 yards per carry.

This offseason, Montgomery has changed uniform numbers and bulked up, preparing to be the team’s starting running back. The Packers need Montgomery to deliver a solid season, or else opposing defenses will zero in on Aaron Rodgers’ passing attack, and the Packers will falter.

Detroit Lions

Key Players: Matthew Stafford, Taylor Decker, Devin Taylor

Key Question: Was last season a fluke?

The Lions squeaked into the playoffs last year on an NFL record eight fourth-quarter comeback wins by Matthew Stafford.

Detroit had a bottom-half offense and a bottom-half defense last year, with a negative point differential (-12), a number that contradicts their 9-7 record. Detroit won just one game last season in which they weren’t behind in the fourth quarter.

No disrespect to Matt Stafford and his incredible fourth quarter exploits, but last year’s magic will be incredibly hard to reproduce. And if the Lions can’t repeat what they did last year, they won’t be able to sniff the postseason.

Minnesota Vikings

Key Players: Everson Griffen, Sam Bradford, Linval Joseph

Key Question: Who is the starting running back?

Last season, the Minnesota Vikings ranked dead last in the NFL in terms of rushing yardage. Their mark of 1,205 was not even half the mark set by the league-leading Buffalo Bills.

This offseason they’ve rectified that issue by drafting Dalvin Cook and signing Latavius Murray in free agency.

If Murray can replicate his exploits with the Raiders last year, and if Cook can deliver on his Pro-Bowl potential, the Vikings will have a terrific one-two punch at running back.

Murray and Cook have enormous shoes to fill after Adrian Peterson’s departure, but if they’re up to the task, the Vikings can challenge for a playoff berth.

Chicago Bears

Key Players: Jordan Howard, Akiem Hicks, Cameron Meredith

Key Question: Will Mitchell Trubisky receive any snaps this year?

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The Bears shocked the NFL world when they traded two third round picks and a fourth rounder to move up one slot and select quarterback Mitchell Trubisky number two overall in the draft. This was a bit perplexing, as the Bears had given Mike Glennon a 3 year, $45 million contract during free agency.

Glennon deserves the starting nod and he will get it, but Trubisky deserves consideration too. The Bears clearly believe in him after spending so much draft capital to move up in the draft, and I hope he gets a chance this year.

NFC South

Atlanta Falcons

Key Players: Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Vic Beasley

Key Question: Can they avoid a Super Bowl hangover?

The Falcons lost last season’s Super Bowl in nearly the most demoralizing way possible, and they need to avoid the dreaded Super Bowl hangover.

Atlanta’s offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan — whose record-setting offense earned Matt Ryan the MVP —  left and became the 49ers head coach.

Last season’s Carolina Panthers are a perfect example of what the Falcons must avoid next year. The Panthers dropped from 15-1 to 6-10 after their Super Bowl loss, meaning that next season is extremely important for the Falcons. If they succeed next year, they will have laid the groundwork for years of potential dominance. But if they falter, their magnificent 2016 season will be remembered as a fluke.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Key Players: Lavonte David, Gerald McCoy, Jameis Winston

Key Question: Are the young Bucs ready for the playoffs?

Playoffs? Yes, playoffs. The Buccaneers finished 9-7 last year, missing out on those elusive playoffs because of a tiebreaker.

This offseason, Jameis Winston and company have added players like speedy receiver DeSean Jackson and powerful tight end O.J. Howard.

Last year the Bucs secured their first winning record since 2010, as Jameis Winston grew and the defense turned around. They led the league with 18 takeaways over the last eight weeks of the year.

The Bucs now have one of the scariest offenses in football. And their young defense is built to stop high-octane offenses like the Saints and Falcons. No matter if the rest of the NFL is ready or not, here come the Bucs.

New Orleans Saints

Key Players: Drew Brees, Zach Strief, Nick Fairley

Key Question: Can their defense catch up to their offense?

The Saints have finished with a top-ten offense and a bottom-five defense in the past three seasons. Last year, New Orleans finished first in yards gained and second in points scored. But they finished 31st in yards allowed and 27th in points conceded.

The Saints have continued to reinforce their defense through the draft and free agency, but to no avail; the defense has been horrendous the past few seasons. If the Saints can’t shore up their historically bad defense, their historically good offense will be wasted, and they will stay marooned in mediocrity.

Carolina Panthers

Key Players: Thomas Davis, Cam Newton, Luke Kuechly

Key Question: Can Cam Newton and the Panthers bounce back after last year’s disastrous season?Embed from Getty Images 

 
The Panthers followed their 2015 NFC-winning 15-1 season with a bumbling 6-10 record in 2016. GM Dave Gettleman, who oversaw the most successful four-year period in franchise history, was shockingly fired in mid-July.

Carolina’s QB Cam Newton struggled mightily last year, scoring 21 fewer touchdowns than he did in his 2015 MVP campaign.

The Panthers defense also struggled last season after the loss of star cornerback Josh Norman, dropping from sixth in points allowed in 2015 to twenty-sixth in 2016.

Overall, the team seemed disinterested last year and Cam Newton’s usually-vibrant enthusiasm was clouded over. Carolina is facing a make-or-break year that will determine whether their magical 2015 was an anomaly or not.

NFCWest

Seattle Seahawks

Key Players: Bobby Wagner, Russell Wilson, Cliff Avril

Key Question: Who will be the starting running back?

The Seattle Seahawks have been an NFL power for many years, making the postseason the past five seasons. However, their offense scuffled around last season, and Seattle finished 25th in the league in rushing yards.

Thomas Rawls, who led the league in yards per carry (5.6) during his breakout 2015 campaign, struggled with injuries last year, and his yards per attempt dropped to just 3.2. Eddie Lacy, Rawls’ main competition, has struggled with injuries and weight problems the past two years, and hopefully the Seahawks can resurrect his once-promising career. Lacy and Rawls will fight for the starting job, and the Seahawks will need a strong running game to challenge the other heavyweights of the NFC.

Arizona Cardinals

Key Players: David Johnson, Carson Palmer, Patrick Peterson

Key Question: Is Carson Palmer finished?Embed from Getty Images

The Cardinals endured an odd season last year as they followed up their NFC Championship game appearance in 2015 with a 7-8-1 record. The Cardinals lost six more games in 2016 than they did in 2015, and this was chiefly because of quarterback Carson Palmer.

As you can see by the chart below, Palmer’s production fell off a cliff in 2016.

Carson Palmer’s 2015 vs. 2016
Year Age G QBrec Cmp Att Cmp% Yds TD TD% Int Int% Y/A AY/A Y/C Y/G Rate QBR Sacked NY/A ANY/A Sack% 4QC GWD AV
2015 36 16 13-3 342 537 63.7 4671 35 6.5 11 2.0 8.7 9.1 13.7 291.9 104.6 78.6 25 8.04 8.41 4.4 2 5 16
2016 37 15 6-8-1 364 597 61.0 4233 26 4.4 14 2.3 7.1 6.9 11.6 282.2 87.2 58.9 40 6.20 6.03 6.3 1 3 12

Palmer will be entering the 2017 season at the ripe old age of 38, and he may not be able to carry the Cardinals any longer. Arizona should start looking to find his replacement.

Los Angeles Rams

Key Players: Aaron Donald, Alec Ogletree, Todd Gurley

Key Question: Can Todd Gurley bounce back?

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Like the rest of the Rams last year, Todd Gurley endured a horrible 2016 season. The open holes that Gurley found in his rookie year were simply not there last year, and Gurley averaged 30 fewer yards per game.

Gurley depended on long runs during his rookie season. Among running backs with at least 150 carries, Gurley had the highest percentage of runs that lasted 25 or more yards (8 out of 229). In 2016 though, Gurley ranked dead last in this metric, failing to have a single run of 25 yards or more in 278 carries.

The Rams recruited vital offensive line help this offseason, so hopefully Gurley will be able to rebound.

San Francisco 49ers

Key Players: Zane Beadles, DeForest Buckner, Carlos Hyde

Key Question: Can the new front office rebuild the team?

Many analysts, including myself, criticized the 49ers heavily when they hired John Lynch as their general manager. Lynch never had any front office experience, but he has had an excellent offseason.

First, he hired Kyle Shanahan, the former Falcons offensive coordinator, to be the 49ers new head coach. Shanahan is considered to be one of the brightest young minds in the game.

Then, Lynch signed underrated veterans like Brian Hoyer, Pierre Garcon, and Kyle Juszczyk in free agency.

Lynch also made off with a king’s ransom in the draft, trading down to select Solomon Thomas and then trading up to select Reuben Foster.

Although Lynch inherited possibly the most talent-baren roster in football, he has started to piece it back together.

Special thanks to Pro Football Reference, Spotrac, and Pro Football Focus for all of these helpful statistics.

I would also like to thank ESPN for each team’s depth chart.

Thanks for reading!

Carson Wentz picture credit: By Keith Allison [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons