U.S. Futures All-Star Will Middlebrooks of the Boston Red Sox winks as he runs on the field during the 2011 XM All-Star Futures Game at Chase Field in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)
While the Red Sox front office continues to talk compensation with the Cubs, there is real-life baseball being played. I don't mean in someone's backyard, either, even if that's likely true. The Arizona Fall League is in full swing, and the Red Sox have a few of their players involved that are worth checking in on.
The AFL is an extreme hitter's league, due both to the environment and the kind of players who go there. Organizations don't send their top pitching prospects to the AFL to get them additional work, they send projects and older, non-prospects, in the hopes of seeing something from them that they like, and giving them an opportunity to show that that something is there. It's why Trey McNutt, who the Red Sox are currently seeking from the Cubs, is there -- his season wasn't great, after a stellar 2010, and between the mechanical problems he had and injuries he dealt with that hampered his season, the Cubs would like to see more of him in his healthy state -- and against good hitting. That puts him in the project category -- he's not broken by any means, but Chicago would like him to get more time to right himself, and the AFL allows that.
Boston has a few pitchers like that involved: Will Latimer, a 25-year-old lefty who reached Double-A for the first time in 2011, has thrown five innings in which he has struck out four and walked none, and Brock Huntzinger, a starter in the past and a reliever in the present, started two games and relieved in another in the AFL, striking out seven and walking a pair. Neither of those pitchers is considered a real prospect, but Boston sends them to the AFL for a reason.
Alex Hassan, who hit .291/.404/.456 for Double-A Portland this year, and finished the season with three games and four plate appearances in Pawtucket, has not had himself a good time in the AFL. His excellent batting eye remains on display -- he has a .452 on-base percentage over 22 at-bats, walking six times while whiffing just three times -- but he hasn't done much with the ball when he's hit it. Hassan's overall line is .227/.452/.227, the kind of performance that can only be attained through seven game samples. Hassan hasn't made any top prospects list for Boston yet, but there might be a lot of talent here, assuming he can keep his swing mechanics in check and hit the ball for some power.
Will Middlebrooks, the system's top prospect that hasn't been to the majors, has hit a bit better, but in his very different from Hassan way. Middlebrooks has also hit in the low .200s, posting a batting average of .258, but instead of a high OBP to go with it (he's at .303 over 31 at-bats), Middlebrooks has slugged .516 thanks to a pair of both doubles and homers. It's the AFL, so power is expected, but it's good to see him continue the power surge he started in the regular season, when he posted a career-high in homers (23), Isolated Power (.221), and hit the second-most doubles of any pro season he's had.
The 2012 season was the first in which Middlebrooks played at multiple levels, and he struggled after his promotion to Triple-A. He struck out 30 percent of the time after posting a career-low 23.9 percent whiff rate at Portland; he'll need to be closer to the latter figure before he's ready for the majors, especially since he doesn't walk very much. Middlebrooks' strength in his aggressiveness is his plate coverage, so when he can zero in on what Triple-A pitchers are trying to do to him, he'll be dangerous, just like when it happened at Double-A. He's in the AFL to keep getting at-bats, and put a better end on his season than the one he had in Pawtucket.