U.S. Futures All-Star Will Middlebrooks of the Boston Red Sox throws the ball to first base during the 2011 XM All-Star Futures Game at Chase Field in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
The minor league season is coming to a close in a few weeks, so this is likely the last Double-A update Portland will get until it's time to review the system's year. Portland has been a mix of players solidifying their prospect status with players who have shown they need to spend more time at the level before they can think about a promotion to Pawtucket for 2012. Even with the promotions and the trades, there are plenty of players worth checking in on at this level.
Will Middlebrooks has hit .296/.339/.511 for the Sea Dogs in 354 plate appearances this year. His 15 homers are a career-high (though he has 18 on the season thanks to a four-game stint in Low-A Lowell), as is his .215 Isolated Power, surpassing 2010's .163mark. He has struck out 23 percent of the time, improving on last year's 25 percent rate, his previous career-best. His walk rate is low once against, at 5.3 percent, but that's just how it's going to be with him. He has tremendous plate coverage, and if the ball is in a spot where his bat can reach it, there is a good chance he will both swing and make solid contact.
Not drawing walks is different than not having strike zone recognition, and Middlebrooks has the latter (though, of course, there is still room to improve for the 22-year-old). He has made 12 errors at third, but by all accounts, we're looking at a plus defender at third base by the time he gets to the majors. Combine that with the bat, and you're looking at a real good, potentially underrated player. Prospect gurus are starting to take notice, though, with Keith Law ranking Middlebrooks in his mid-season Top 50, and Kevin Goldstein doing the same, after neither of them included him in the previous lists. In Law's case, Middlebrooks was the top Sox prospect, but for Goldstein, just 2010 draftee Bryce Brentz was ahead of him.
Jeremy Hazelbaker is still having a rough go of it with Portland, and is now at .242/.339/.377 in 308 plate appearances. he is striking out 26 percent of the time, right around the rates of last year, but the production just hasn't been there. His running game has also slowed with the level jump: whereas last year at Greenville, the then 22-year-old swiped 63 bags and was caught stealing 17 times, he has run just 46 times all year between two levels with 35 successful attempts. That's still quite a few steals, but as the catchers get better at Triple-A and, if he ever gets there, the majors, those numbers should continue to dip.
He has at least one more year to figure things out at Double-A with Boston, as he isn't eligible for the Rule 5 draft (and therefore in need of 40-man roster protection) until the 2012-2013 off-season. He'll need to cut down on his strikeouts and rediscover some of the power he had at earlier levels in order to earn that spot, though, and it's not a guarantee he will given this is his first age-appropriate test, and he isn't passing it with flying colors. He'll need that bat, too, as, except for his speed, none of his defensive qualities are appropriate for center field.
Alex Hassan has struggled as of late, as he hit just .212/.309/.294 in July and is at .167/.250/.222 in his last 10 games. Prior to this, he was killing it, with three straight months where his OPS was over 900 (and one where it was over 1000). The 20th round pick in the 2009 draft still has a solid season line of .286/.408/.428, but his power has basically vanished as of late.
Sox Prospects mentions in his scouting report that he tends to, " hit with too much upper body and produce a lot of topspin," and with the way his power has dropped and now looks for the season, it may be safe to say that's still the case. He still has his impressive K/BB ratio, at least, with just 63 punch outs on the year against 65 walks drawn. There is a lot to like here, but until he learns how to drive the ball, he's more intriguing than he is a legitimate prospect, especially since, outside of his arm, he isn't considered a quality defender in left field.
Chris Balcom-Miller has been able to remain an extreme groundball pitcher in Portland (2.7 G/F ratio), but he is having trouble dominating like he has in the past. His numbers are still solid for the most part, as he has struck out 7.9 hitters per nine, but far too many hits are getting through (11.7 per nine) and it's killing his ERA, especially when combined with his career-worst 3.7 per nine walk rate.
Now, with better defensive players behind him, Miller wouldn't be having this same issue with the hits, but it isn't all on the defense: some of it is growing pains associated with the promotion to Double-A, i.e., he is falling behind in the count and putting himself into unfavorable counts. It will be interesting to see how Balcom-Miller adjusts to this in 2012, as the groundball/strikeout combination still gives him a lot of potential to turn into something useful for the Red Sox.