Will Middlebrooks Be Back?

Will Middlebrooks is one of 11 players to grace the cover of the Boston Red Sox 2013 Media Guide alongside David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia and Jon Lester, and he was there for a reason.

In 2012, Middlebrooks joined the likes of Ryan Braun, Albert Pujols and Mark McGwire on a list of players who – in their first 75 Major League games – had 15 home runs and 54 RBI. Until he fractured his wrist on August 10 Middlebrooks was excelling, his 15 home runs drawing comparisons to former Red Sox rookies Trot Nixon and Brian Daubach.

Despite playing in only 75 games, Baseball Digest selected him as the 3rd baseman on the All-Rookie team and he was named Red Sox Rookie of the Year by the Boston Baseball Writers.

In a season that didn’t have many bright spots Middlebrooks was definitely one of them.

Coming into 2013 the Red Sox signed players all around Middlebrooks – Gomes in left, Drew at shortstop, Napoli at first, even David Ross at catcher. Nothing at third base. Pedro Ciriaco could backup that spot as part of his utility role and no-one gave it a second thought. A healthy Middlebrooks was the starting 3rd baseman, no question.

Middlebrooks came out of Spring Training hitting .320 with 7 doubles and a home run in 56 at bats. Spring Training numbers should always be taken with a fist full of salt, but hitting over .300 is a positive sign at any time of the season.

Fast forward to the end April, one month into the regular season, and the Texarkana native was hitting just .198 but had slugged 6 home runs while sporting a BABIP barely above the Mason Dixon line (or just below the Mendoza line, if you prefer). It was probably around this point that mutterings of a sophomore slump began to surface, however as it was still early into the season they could be mostly shrugged off. The sample size was too small, his BABIP suggested some bad luck and while 6 home runs in a month isn’t ‘98 Sosa good, it’s very respectable.

Fast forward to 23 May. Middlebrooks did pick up his average but only by 0.07 points. Hitting .211 might not have been as much of a problem had he also continued to hit home runs, but he only collected 2 more dingers in the month to that point.

From 1 April to 23 May Middlebrooks struck out 54 times in 174 at bats while walking just 7 times – he also had 7 errors while fielding his position.

Perhaps, then, it was foolish to expect a player with just 75 at-bats in the majors to be the de facto starter at third base this year. But it wasn’t just the Front Office or Sox fans who believed in what Middlebrooks had shown. ESPN’s fantasy analysts ranked him ahead of Pedro Alvarez, Josh Donaldson and Matt Carpenter – all three are currently outperforming Middlebrooks this season.

On June 25th Middlebrooks was optioned to Pawtucket after losing his playing time to Jose ‘The BABIP Denier’  Iglesias. Sitting on the bench made no sense for Middlebrooks, but how valuable will playing time in the minors really be?

The best that we can hope for is that he hits well enough to again prove he’s too good for Triple A – which shouldn’t take long – and in 14 games with the Pawsox (including his rehab stint in May) he’s hitting .296 with 6 home runs and 7 walks to 8 strikeouts. With no errors in the field.

Should he keep that up John Farrell will have to promote Middlebrooks, a potent bat cannot be ignored for long. What happens with Iglesias and Stephen Drew remains to be seen, and largely depends on the Cuban continuing his current vein of form, something that – if we’ve learned anything – is far from guaranteed.

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