Most scouts and Red Sox development folks must believe that Will Middlebrooks has tons of talent and can be a fine major league hitter and a mainstay in the Red Sox lineup for many years. However, after a potential-laden first two years with the Sox, some disbelievers must be about. Why would we have tendered Stephen Drew (at $14M) in the offseason if the plan wasn’t to put him back at shortstop and move Xander Boegarts back to Middlebrooks’ spot at third? I am still bullish though. He, more than any other player, has the ability to take a major stride forward in 2014. And he needs to.
Middlebrooks first made his debut with the Red Sox in 2012 and his power hitting skills ultimately chased Kevin Youkilis out of town. In only 254 at-bats over the year, Middlebrooks hit .288, blasted 15 homers and had 54 RBIs; double those numbers for a full-season representation. A nice way to break in and optimism reigned throughout Red Sox Nation. The starting third baseman as 2013 began, Middlebrook’s production declined even if the power didn’t. The Sox sent him back to Pawtucket to get it right, and then recalled him in August. Over the course of the entire season, encompassing 94 games and 374 at-bats, Middlebrooks’ average plummeted to .227, even while his homers increased to 17 long balls. He’s never going to be Brooks Robinson at third base but disappointingly, his play there was mediocre at best over both years. But let’s face it, it’s his bat that he’s here for.
What are we to make of all this? I am still a Middlebrooks believer. Sophomore slumps are common. I prefer to point out to folks that over the course of only his first 615 major league at-bats–Middlebrooks has crushed 32 homers. Not too dusty! In fact, in today’s pitching dominated game with decreasing offense, that’s downright gaudy.
Please take a second to review last year’s lineup—top to bottom. Who do think can/will improve on his 2013 numbers this year? Ellsbury? Oh no wait. He’s gone. Maybe Pedroia will regain his power if his thumb is completely healed. Papi, Victorino, Napoli, Nava, Gomes? I doubt it. The now departed Salty vs. AJ behind the plate? A wash. Who knows about Bogaerts? I sure hope he’s better than Drew, but do we know? Can Sizemore/Bradley Jr. approach what Ellsbury provided in offensive punch? Unlikely.
Of everybody, Middlebrooks is most likely to show major improvement, and his ability to do that is hugely critical to the 2014 Sox. We simply need him to hit—a lot.
If he doesn’t, what recourse do we have? Move Bogaerts to third and play Jonathan Herrera at short? Ugggh. Who else on the active roster can even play third? Nobody is the answer. We do have a terrific third base prospect in Garin Cecchini, but he’s only 22, split last year between A and AA ball and it’s just too early.
The Sox pitching will carry them in 2014, but if the offense is to be of pennant-winning caliber, Will Middlebrooks needs to play a big role. I say he will.