In the Red Sox' darkest hour, Will Middlebrooks gave us fans something to cheer for.
It's been a while since Red Sox fans have really had a rookie sensation like Middlebrooks to get excited about. With Josh Reddick there was the understanding that plenty of the production came from BABIP, and that he was likely not the long-term answer in Fenway. With Ryan Kalish the results were acceptable but not exceptional. Jed Lowrie flared out and took a while to get going again. And Daniel Bard, fantastic as he was, was still just a reliever.
Really the last time someone got Boston talking with quite so much energy was Jacoby Ellsbury back in late 2007.
For all that, though, Middlebrooks did not enter the majors with the same sort of steam behind his hype engine as Ellsbury. After all, Ellsbury's rise was fast. He was drafted in 2005, and by mid-2006 was clearly one of the preeminent talents in the system.
Will Middlebrooks, on the other hand, had to work his way up. As recently as 2010, he was a seriously flawed prospect who had shown some power, but still could not break into top-10s three years after being drafted. After a .276/.331/.439 season in Salem, the only thing that really set Middlebrooks apart from so many other players making their way up one level at a time, never really excelling, was that he was a third baseman in a system seemingly devoid of real talent at the position.
Then came a breakout season in Portland with an impressive power display. Combined with a weak system (Barnes and Bradley hadn't had a chance to show their stuff yet, Bogaerts still needed to perform at a higher level) and excellent defense, it was enough to leave MIddlebrooks tentatively topping the charts.
Finally, in 2012, it all came together. Middlebrooks dominated Pawtucket for 100 at bats, and then was quickly yanked up to the majors to fill in for a struggling, injured Kevin Youkilis. He didn't wait nearly so long to make his mark in the majors, making his way on base three times in his first game, and then hitting three homers between his third and fourth starts.
The good times would not continue indefinitely. It has to be acknowledged that Middlebrooks looked quite pedestrian at times as the season progressed. Really, though, what we got to see was the learning process. Pitchers would identify his weakness, and Will would work on it and in a week's time he wouldn't fall for their tricks anymore. He learned to wait for his pitch, to first not offer at curveballs that would always be offered to him in the dirt, and then to not be taken advantage of by pitchers who suddenly started offering them up for strikes.
And, of course, throughout we were treated to a good few home runs and some rare fun from a guy wearing a Red Sox uniform in 2012.
In the end the light that was Will Middlebrooks' rookie season was snuffed out a bit too early. One bad pitch and his year came to a sudden and abrupt end with a broken wrist. It would be another couple of weeks before the Punto Trade unofficially ended Boston's season, but almost all of the joy and a lot of the reason to watch went away with Middlebrooks.
It's been four months now, almost to the day, since we last saw Will Middlebrooks stand in at the plate and take his hacks. And, because of the nature of his injury and sophomore slumps, there is reason to be concerned heading into 2013. Will the power still be there, or will the wrist hold him back? Will pitchers find new ways to exploit him? Has he forgotten the lessons of 2012, or will he just keep growing? There are few certainties in baseball, and even fewer when it comes to young players and wrist injuries. But hopes are high that Will Middlebrooks will be not just a bright spot going forward, but the center of a new youth movement that pushes the team into the future.