When Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine made his first cuts of the spring there weren’t any big surprises on the list. Heading the group of players was Red Sox third base prospect Will Middlebrooks, considered the top prospect in the Sox organization by many but not quite ready to make an impact at the Major League level. The question is, when could we see Middlebrooks’ name etched into the Boston Red Sox lineup?
There are a few notable obstacles standing between Will Middlebrooks and Boston, the first being All Star third baseman Kevin Youkilis. The Red Sox have Youk signed through the 2012 season with a team option for 2013, but this season will determine whether Youkilis stays in Boston or the Red Sox hand the torch to Will Middlebrooks.
Performance on both players’ parts will play a big role in the decision but Youk’s ability to stay healthy may be even bigger. In the last two seasons Youkilis has missed a total of 102 games, just 60 short of a full season. In 2010 it was his thumb that shelved him in August and last season it was a combination of his hip and a sports hernia that led to 40 games on the bench.
In 2010 when Youk was on the field he was productive. His .307 BA, .411 OBP, 19 HR and 62 RBI in 102 games speaks to that but his .258 BA and .373 OBP in 2011 were below his career averages and Looking beyond the numbers, Youk just didn’t look good last season. He looked like a player in the start of a swift decline, a scary thought for Red Sox fans.
There is hope on the horizon though. Will Middlebrooks (2007 fifth round pick) stormed through the Red Sox system in 2011, starting in A-ball and finishing the season in AAA Pawtucket where he struggled a bit in 16 games. (.161 BA,.200 OBP,18K/56PA). The Sox’ top prospect made his biggest impact with the Double A Portland Sea Dogs in 2011. In 96 games he had 18 HR, 80 RBI, 6 SB, .302 BA, .345 OBP, .520 SLG (.865 OPS)
The biggest thing that the Red Sox will be looking for in 2012 is Middlebrooks’ improvement in pitch selection. The right handed hitter walked just 26 times in 439 PA’s at the Minor League level in ’11 while striking out 113 times. If he can improve his plate discipline he will no doubt be in Boston in the near future.
My prediction is Will Middlebrooks will spend the majority of the 2012 season in Pawtucket honing his skills with a September promotion likely. The big decision will come in the offseason when the Red Sox are forced to decide if Middlebrooks is ready for Fenway or they need to pick up Youk’s option/make a trade. A trade during the season is a possibility but the Red Sox tend to give their prospects plenty of time to develop (Ex. Ryan Lavarnway) and I don’t see that trend changing with their highest touted prospect going into the season. You have to take into consideration that Middlebrooks has only 56 at bats above Double A and he hit .161 in those at bats. A full season at Pawtucket seems like the smartest route to take with the 23 year old prospect.
As long as nothing drastic happens with Youkilis I think we see Middlebrooks in September at the earliest and here to stay in ’13.