On July 8, with the Red Sox facing the Tampa Bay Rays at home, Mookie Betts led off the first inning with a walk. Two batters later, Xander Bogaerts singled him home. Three batters after that, Jackie Bradley, Jr. added a sacrifice fly to give Boston a 2-0 lead. The Red Sox would go on to win the game, 6-5, thanks in large part to contributions from these three young All-Stars and former Portland Sea Dogs.
Portland and Boston have had an embarrassment of riches in terms of young talent flowing through the system in recent years. Bradley, now 26, played in Portland in 2012, hitting .271/.373/.437 (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) and introducing Maine to his highlight-reel defense. He spent some time with the big-league club in 2013, 2014, and 2015, but struggled with the bat before breaking out this year, hitting .296/.379/.552 with 14 home runs through Saturday’s game.
Bogaerts, still just 23, played in Portland in 2012 and 2013, hitting .315/.390/.531 in 79 total games before being called up to Triple A Pawtucket and later Boston. He reached the big leagues in time to contribute eight hits and six walks to a postseason run that ended with a World Series trophy. Three years later, he’s an MVP candidate, batting .331/.392/.479 with 22 doubles and 10 stolen bases and playing solid shortstop defense.
Betts, also 23, played in Portland in 2014, batting .355/.443/.551 with 22 stolen bases in 54 games, mostly as a second baseman. Even more than Bradley and Bogaerts, Betts proved himself too skilled for Double A, jumping to Pawtucket in late summer and landing with the big club in September, where he slotted in at centerfield and looked like a star from day one. Now in rightfield, Betts is batting .299/.340/.522 with 18 homers and 15 steals through half a season.
The hallmark of Boston’s young trio is their excellence in every facet of the game. Each is batting over .295 with 10 or more home runs. Each has provided positive defensive value, as Bogaerts and Bradley excel at two of the most important positions on the diamond and Betts is among the game’s best outfielders, patrolling Fenway’s spacious rightfield. Perhaps more impressively, the three have stolen a total of 33 bases while being caught just five times, an incredible 87 percent success rate. Per Fangraphs’ Wins Above Replacement, Bogaerts has been the sixth Most Valuable Player in the American League this season, with Betts and Bradley 10th and 11th, respectively, just behind teammate David Ortiz.
Bradley’s tenure in Portland came with the least fanfare of the three. He was drafted 40th overall in 2011 after leading South Carolina to the 2010 College World Series championship, but hand injuries had limited his offensive production at the lower levels, and he had never hit for much power.
Bogaerts was discovered by a Red Sox scout and drafted at age 16, and by the time he reached Portland, he was hailed as the next Nomar Garciaparra after showing power and contact skills as a teenager in Single A.
Betts was drafted four rounds after Bradley in 2011, but showed speed, power, and defensive acumen in the lower levels. By the time he reached Portland, the only question was what position he would play in the big leagues, with Dustin Pedroia blocking his path to second base. The Sea Dogs tried him in the outfield and he fit there like butter on a lobster claw.
As big leaguers, the three took paths to stardom similar to the level of hype that accompanied them when they arrived in Portland. Betts was a star as soon as he put on a Red Sox uniform. Bogaerts added value as a 20-year-old September call-up and October champion, but his power and patience are still developing with every season in Boston. Bradley looked like a waste of a phenomenal glove and a rocket arm until he found his power stroke this spring.
This week, they’ll all start in the All-Star Game, culminating a banner decade for Red Sox scouting and development.
The 2016 Red Sox would not be where they are without the prodigious bat of Ortiz and the feisty glovework of Pedroia, but the key to their early season success, and much of the reason for near-future optimism, lies in the performance of Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, and Jackie Bradley, Jr.