By David Heck, Special to CBS Local Sports
CBS Local Sports will be profiling one young player from each Major League Baseball team every day for the next 30 days as part of our “30 Players 30 Days” spring training feature.
Will Middlebrooks, Third Baseman, Boston Red Sox
2012 season: 75 G, 267 AB, .288 BA, 15 HR, 54 RBI, .835 OPS
For years, the Red Sox haven’t had to worry about their output at third base. Kevin Youkilis put up MVP-type numbers during his best years, and before him, players like Bill Mueller and Shea Hillenbrand performed more than adequately. This year, Boston will look to youngster Will Middlebrooks to continue that trend.
The 24-year-old earned a call-up in May of last season, ultimately displacing Youkilis and making him dispensable. Part of that was Youkilis’ demise at the plate (and possibly some tension between him and Bobby Valentine), but part of it was also because Middlebrooks developed exactly as the Red Sox had hoped.
Always a stellar defender, Middlebrooks broke out offensively in 2011, when he posted 23 home runs and an .834 OPS across three levels of the minor leagues. He proved that it was no fluke in 2012, crushing nine longballs in 24 Triple-A games and then adding 15 more in the Majors. Though Middlebrooks exhibits mostly pull power – something you would expect to inflate the right-hander’s numbers in Fenway – he performed about the same at home (.849 OPS) and on the road (.826). And while his career minor league average is only .276, his true talent at this point is probably better than that. In his last 800 at-bats between the minors and Majors, Middlebrooks has batted a more impressive .291.
Overall, Middlebrooks has evolved from the glove-only third baseman he once was into a much more well-rounded player who presents a legitimate threat at the plate. With that said, the Texas native still has plenty of room to improve. Middlebrooks walked just 13 times in the big leagues last year – not necessarily because of a lack of patience, but rather because of a lack of plate discipline. His 3.88 pitches-per-plate-appearance ranked 68th among players with at least 250 plate appearances, but his 4.5% walk rate only placed 277th among the same qualifiers. Middlebrooks also declined throughout last season, calling into question his ability to make adjustments. His OPS decreased in all four months that he played, falling from .922 in May (24 games) down to .673 in August (10 games). And that is to say nothing of the broken right wrist that cost him almost the final two months of the season.
In the future, Middlebrooks projects as a player who could hit 30 home runs with a solid average and strong defense at third. In other words, an All-Star. He still has to improve his approach at the plate, but that’s not uncommon for young players – especially ones who developed their offensive game later on. This season, Middlebrooks will be relied upon as one of the Red Sox’s middle-of-the-order bats. If he’s healthy and figures out how to make adjustments, he should be able to fulfill that role.
Next up on March 3: Toronto Blue Jays