The Yankees and Red Sox are nearing another chapter in their historic rivalry following the emergence of Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez and Luis Severino in New York and Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley and Andrew Benintendi in Boston.
The teams’ farm systems might not be done delivering high-caliber prospects to the major leagues, either. Yankees shortstop Gleyber Torres and Red Sox third baseman Rafael Devers—a pair of supremely talented 20-year-olds—began the season as the two youngest players in the Double-A Eastern League and showed no signs of bowing to their older, more seasoned competition.
In the case of Torres, the Yankees noticed early that he was special in ways that might not show up in scouting reports or box scores.
Double-A Trenton hitting coach Tom Slater was with high Class A Tampa when Torres arrived last year and immediately noticed a veteran sense of awareness. In particular, he was impressed with the way Torres instantly committed new pitchers and their tendencies to memory.
That was evident during the first game of Torres’ final series in Double-A. Facing Portland lefthander Trey Ball, a 2013 first-rounder with an above-average changeup, he showed his ability to react and make adjustments.
In his first turn against Ball, Torres was flummoxed by a sequence of three changeups, followed by a fastball and then a fourth changeup for strike three. In his next at-bat, Torres got another changeup from Ball and hit it three-quarters of the way up the batter’s eye at Arm & Hammer Park for a grand slam.
“It’s amazing. He can, after the game, walk you through the pitch sequencing that he saw and his thought process as he goes through the game in each at-bat,” Slater said. “Because he’s so intelligent and because he’s so mature and wise beyond his years, it’s just impressive to me the adjustments he’s able to make throughout the game and throughout each at-bat.”
Torres came over from the Cubs as the crown jewel in the Aroldis Chapman trade last July that helped remake the Yankees system at midseason. Rafael Devers, on the other hand, was one of the few high-end Red Sox prospects left standing after Dave Drombowski dealt Anderson Espinoza, Michael Kopech, Manuel Margot, Yoan Moncada and others for big league pitchers.
Devers’ ascension to the top of Boston’s system, however, isn’t by default. He would have been in the conversation regardless of the team’s wheeling and dealing, and he has earned a spot among the game’s very best prospects for his continued performance against older competition.
Like Torres, Devers has impressed his bosses with behavior away from the field befitting a more veteran player.
“He’s put in work. This kid works hard,” Portland manager Carlos Febles said. “He came to me before the season started and said he wants come out at least twice every homestand to work on different things, and it’s been paying off. His work ethic is off the charts.
“If you watch him take ground balls, he does it game speed.”
Devers’ carrying tool from the day he signed out of the Dominican Republic for $1.5 million in 2013 was his lefthanded bat, and that remains true today. He’s one of the very best hitters in the minor leagues, and that hasn’t changed at Double-A.
He ranked as the best hitter for average and power in the Red Sox system and checked at No. 14 on the most recent installment of the Top 100 Prospects ranking.
Opponents have taken to shifting Devers heavily to his pull side in recent years. This comes despite a spray chart that shows his ability to hit to all fields, and it’s left him a bit confused.
“I don’t understand why they shift me, because I felt like I normally hit the ball to right-center and to left, so I had no concern about the shift at all,” Devers said, with the help of Febles as translator. “It doesn’t bother me, because I have the ability to drive the ball the other way.”
This year’s data bears out Devers’ view, and also shows the result of the work he’s put in to shed his reputation as a pull-only threat. Four of his first eight home runs went to left field, which is one more than he hit that way over the past three seasons.
“He’s just trying to hit the ball wherever it’s pitched. I don’t think that concerns him at all,” Febles said. “All he’s trying to do is just hit the ball where it’s pitched. I don’t know why they shift him, because I don’t see him hit many grounders to the 4-3 hole. He’s a guy who stays gap-to-gap and stays more right-center field or other way to left.”
Aside from being prodigiously talented, both Torres and Devers have another common bond. Each player has a clear opening in the big leagues in the near future.
Torres, who signed with the Cubs for $1.7 million out of Venezuela in 2013, began playing second base and third base this season. Thus he has positioned himself as the successor to third baseman Chase Headley in the Bronx.
Torres has worked extensively with Trenton infield coach Lino Diaz and Yankees roving infield coordinator Carlos Mendoza to increase his versatility in case the Yankees need him at shortstop, second base or third base.
“For me, it’s pretty different,” Torres said. “I’ve never played third base, so the key is to play hard, do early work, take ground balls at second and third base.”
Torres said he has watched videos of the Rays’ Evan Longoria and the Orioles’ Manny Machado—the latter a shining example of a shortstop to third base transition—for hot-corner inspiration.
“The coaches help me a lot,” Torres said. “I look at a lot of videos, too. I have more confidence and am believing that I can do anything I try.”
Devers won’t have to change positions to find a role in Boston. Pablo Sandoval had played just 21 games over the past two seasons and still has two more years remaining on his five-year deal. However, age and injuries make it unlikely that Sandoval will remain the regular in Boston.
Devers has the hands, arm and feet required to play third base, and he has worked hard to keep his body in shape. He wants to be a major league third baseman, and there’s no doubt in his mind he’ll reach the majors at the position.
“It’s very important for me to stay there,” Devers said. “That’s the position I know how to play and the position I’ve been playing since I was a kid. When I first started playing baseball in Little League, that’s where they put me.”
The Yankees and Red Sox have rejuvenated their rosters over the past several years with young, talented stars. In Torres and Devers, it’s clear that both teams have more to come.