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Prospect retrospect: Rafael Devers, Boston Red Sox

We knew Devers was going to be a stud. This MLB postseason he’s showing just that.

MLB: World Series-Los Angeles Dodgers at Boston Red Sox Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

The Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers opened the 2018 World Series is exciting fashion. The game went back and forth ultimately leading to a Red Sox Game 1 victory.

The Red Sox lineup just seems too good. A lot has been said this season about Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez, both making a case for the American League MVP award. Andrew Benintendi put up a solid season, erasing any concerns of what some felt was a “down” 2017, while cementing his place as one of the best defensive corner outfielders in the game. The list goes on and on.

That list includes former top prospect Rafael Devers.

Devers was one of the most elusive prospects I’ve ever covered. Twice during the 2015 season I traveled to watch Devers play with the Greenville Drive. While it wasn’t the worst thing in the world — I got to watch a young Yoan Moncada and Benintendi — but both times, Devers had the day off. He was always the prospect with the most allure in the Red Sox system to me. There was endless footage and multiple reports on Moncada. You were able to watch Benintendi in Arkansas. But I knew very little of Devers. And he seemingly wanted to remain a mystery to me.

I finally caught up with him during his ridiculous rise in 2017. He began the year in Double-A and by season’s end, he was raking in the big leagues.

But let’s take a step back.

Devers signed out of the Domincan Republic for $1.5 million back in 2013. He was known for his big bat but raised concerns about his defense at the hot corner. The left-handed hitter, right-hander thrower showed just that early on, displaying little difficulty in adapting to hitting once stateside.

John Sickels listed him in the “Others” category in his 2014 Red Sox top 20 prospects, but that quickly changed. By 2015, he entered John’s preseason rankings at No. 6 and continued his climb. Here’s what he said:

From 2015:

No. 6 Grade B+/Borderline B: Age 18, hit .337/.445/.538 in Dominican Summer League then .312/.374/.484 in Gulf Coast League. This is an extremely aggressive grade for a rookie ball player but I don’t always play it safe. Questions about his defense exist but scouting reports on the bat are excellent and the early numbers support the scouting reports. In my view, equivalent to a first-round pick out of high school with premium tools and a fast start and graded accordingly.

From 2016:

No. 2 Grade A-: Age 19, hit .288/.329/.443 in Low-A, led Sally League with 38 doubles. Hit 11 homers, 24 walks, 84 strikeouts in 469 at-bats. Hasn’t fully tapped his power yet but that should come; he did greatly improve his defense and I think he can stick at third. You can make a Grade A case but I want to hold back on that until I see where he needs to slot on the Top 100 list.

From 2017:

No. 2 Grade A-: Age 20, signed for $1,500,000 out of Dominican Republic in 2013; hit .282/.335/.444 with 32 doubles, 11 homers, 18 steals in 503 at-bats in High-A; left-handed bat with 60-grade raw power and excellent bat speed, steadily gaining command of the strike zone although not likely to be a walk machine; doesn’t have Benintendi’s polish but has more pure power projection; despite past doubts about his glove at third base, his defensive stats are strong with improving reliability and above-average range; scouting reports are now catching up with the defensive numbers and his reputation for defense is improving; ETA 2019.

As I mentioned, I finally caught up to Devers at the 2017 Eastern League All Star Classic. Though he put on a show in batting practice and I got to watch him get a base hit, it was his demeanor and way he held himself that let you knew he was going to be something special. He smiled at everyone, and you could see he had the confidence needed to excel at the next level. He was a man among boys, and he was only 20 years old.

That 2017 season was something else. He began the year with Portland, and the Eastern League proved too easy. He slashed .300/.369/.575. He had already shown a good ability for making contact to all fields in his first two full seasons, but unleashed his power in 2017.

“The power hasn’t changed,” Devers told me through an interpreter at that game. “My pitch selection has helped me hit more home runs this year. I struggled a little bit [with that] at the beginning of last year.”

By mid-season, he played in the MLB Futures Game, the EL all-star game, and within what seemed hours, he was off to Pawtucket. Among the youngest hitters in the International League, the pitchers in Triple-A could only hope to contain him. He last just nine games, posting a 1.047 OPS and belted two homers before he headed to Fenway.

There, he set the bar extremely high for 2018. In just 58 games the still 20-year-old slashed .285/.338/.482 with 10 home runs and 14 doubles, hitting the ball all over the field and showing that same composure that made him special in the minors.

He entered 2018 with lofty expectations and for the most part didn’t meet them. It wasn’t entirely his fault, he just couldn’t get healthy. He never seemed right at the plate, dealing with multiple disabled list stints. His 24 errors invoked all the fears people had in him from Day 1. But then the playoffs started.

Suddenly everyone forgot they were worried about an increased strikeout rate and a vastly decreased contact rate during the regular season. A few interesting defensive plays from Eduardo Nunez, and Devers bat made all those errors seem like ages ago (and that pinch hit home run from Nunez made people forget about those plays as well).

Devers thrives when it matters most. Last year as a 20-year-old rookie, he hit .364/.429/.909 with two home runs in the Red Sox loss to the Astros in the ALDS. He hasn’t slowed down this year, and now has an unbelievable 13 career MLB postseason RBI with at least one in each of his eight starts. That’s the longest streak to start an MLB postseason career in history, and tied for the longest streak with several others.

By the time you read this, Devers will be a 22-year-old. He will have two postseasons under his belt, among a bevy of minor league accolades, a memorable MLB debut, and the trials and tribulations of a sophomore slump mired by injury. But what he also seems to be is an elite talent, who’s skills are coming to fruition at the big league level.

And that has been fun to watch.