Tomase: Kiké Hernández is a defensive upgrade from Bogaerts at short

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FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Kiké Hernández ranged deep into the shortstop hole on Monday and then rifled a throw across the diamond for the bang-bang out at first base, and Red Sox fans could be forgiven for sharing the same thought: Xander Bogaerts doesn't make that play.

That's no knock on the former Red Sox All-Star, whose value traced more to his offense and clubhouse presence than his range. And it's certainly not to excuse management for the botched negotiations that pushed the franchise stalwart out the door to San Diego, because the 2023 Red Sox would be better with Bogaerts in the lineup.

His loss has nonetheless created opportunities for improvement, however, primarily on defense. It may not have made sense on paper to move a Gold Glove-caliber center fielder to the infield, but after just a few days of game action, it's now clear that Hernández needn't keep the job warm until Trevor Story returns. He could easily thrive there full-time.

"He's a good shortstop, man," said manager Alex Cora. "He's a good shortstop. I know his goals and I can see it because he is a great defender.

"It's a different dynamic in that position for us compared to previous years, right? The other guy (Bogaerts) is a complete shortstop. Played good defense. Offensively, he's one of the best in the big leagues. So, all around, he's one of the top shortstops in the big leagues. But I think defensively, it's a little bit different with Kiké there and he's going to play a lot there."

For his part, Hernández does not mince words when asked if it's possible that he's actually a better shortstop than center fielder.

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"Yeah," he said. "I've always said I'm an infielder that can play outfield. It's what comes naturally to me and I think my instincts are way better suited to the infield. Unfortunately, the only position I've really gotten to play on a daily basis was center field here. I played a lot of second base with the Dodgers, but I didn't play every day and I still played other positions once in a while. I think that's why people think that center field might be my best position, but I do believe shortstop could be that, and I'm looking forward to proving it."

Hernández's athleticism has never been a question. It's what allowed him to become a plus defender in center basically on the fly, and a standout super utility player with the Dodgers. But few players can excel at center and short, so it was fair to wonder if the Red Sox were making themselves weaker at two positions by shifting him back to the infield.

Not even a week into the Grapefruit League season, those concerns have been considerably assuaged.

"That's a tall ask, because he was (expletive) unreal in center," said double play partner Christian Arroyo. "But he's a super athlete. He takes pride in his defense, and he has always taken pride in playing short. Even at the end last year, you could see some of the plays that he was making, you could tell it was natural for him."

As we attempt to find ways the Red Sox could exceed expectations, infield defense is a good place to start. Even with Bogaerts posting some of the best numbers of his career, the Red Sox still ranked in the middle of the pack in outs above average at shortstop, and that came only a year after they finished dead last in the percentage of ground balls turned into outs.

Hernández should change that. Not only does he possess better range than Bogaerts, but he owns an absolute cannon of a throwing arm, too. This is surprising to everyone except him.

"I've been envisioning this happening since I was a little kid," he said. "Every time I envisioned myself in the big leagues, I always thought I was going to be playing shortstop. My versatility has always worked as a double-edged sword for me."

The play he made on Monday was half about range and half about the strong overhand throw with his momentum carrying towards third base.

"That's not a play that you just make if you're not really good at short," Arroyo said. "He's going to make a lot more of those plays."

Hernández agrees, but with an addendum. He didn't like that he needed teammate Justin Turner to pick his throw at first to complete the putout.

"I think that in a couple of more weeks, I'll make that same play," he said, "but I'll hit him in the chest."

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