Greg M. Cooper-US PRESSWIRE
Is the next long-term extension candidate on the Red Sox already in uniform in Boston?
The Red Sox are selective about the young players they sign to long-term extensions. That isn't stopping second-year third baseman Will Middlebrooks from speaking his mind on the subject, though. While the word "extension" was never uttered, his openness to one can certainly be inferred from his quotes in this piece by ESPN Boston's Joe McDonald:
"I would give anything to play here my whole career," Middlebrooks said. "Everyone wants to play in a market like this. Everyone wants to play on a team like this. Well, not everyone, because it does take a certain player. There have been plenty of players to come through here who hated it. It's hard to play here. If you don't like pressure, you don't want to play here. But I like it and it motivates me to do well because I don't want to disappoint anybody."
MIddlebrooks thinks he's the kind of guy who can handle the pressures of Boston, and his first stint in the majors has done little to dissuade analysts from that point of view: the 23-year-old hit .288/.325/.509 in his first 76 big-league games, despite sharing the stage and pressure of success with the now-departed Kevin Youkilis. Middlebrooks didn't get to finish the year out due his season-ending broken wrist, but is expected to be fully recovered from the effects of the injury in time for the 2013 campaign. It's there that Middlebrooks will get the chance to start to prove he belongs in the rare company of Boston extensions for young players.
It's not that the Red Sox are averse to extensions for their talented youth, it's just that they don't always get the opportunity to ink their players to deals that are both team- and player-friendly. Jonathan Papelbon and Jacoby Ellsbury both eschewed extensions in favor of taking arbitration year-by-year, and Daniel Bard's development and any potential extension talks were both knocked off course by his horrid 2012. Jon Lester, Dustin Pedroia, Clay Buchholz, and the aforementioned Youkilis have all signed these kinds of deals, though.
Youkilis signed in 2009, rather than agree to arbitration for the second time. The deal bought out his remaining two seasons of arbitration, as well as his first two years of free agency, and also included an option for the third. It turns out he could have made more based on his performance, especially if he had become a free agent after his monster 2010, but all things considered, guaranteeing Youkilis over $42 million when he had made just one-tenth of that in his previous four seasons was intended to be fair for for both parties.
Pedroia never even reached arbitration-eligibility, with the Red Sox paying him in the pre-arb 2007 and 2008 seasons, then signing him to a six-year deal with an option for a seventh for the 2009 campaign. Pedroia was guaranteed similar money to Youkilis, at $41 million, a massive increase on the roughly $800,000 he had pulled in total to that point in his career. While Lester and Buchholz are pitchers, and not quite comparable to Middlebrooks, it's worth noting that Lester signed a deal when he was arbitration-eligible for the first time, and Buchholz, agreed to an extension that began in 2012 and can run through 2017 should the Sox pick up the options.
Youkilis hit .289/.385/.472 for about three-and-a-half seasons worth of games before the Sox committed to him long-term, while Pedroia played just the two. The latter, however, won the Rookie of the Year award in his first campaign, and brought home AL Most Valuable Player honors in his second, so it was in Boston's best interest to lock him up as soon as possible to a deal that, like Youk's, would treat both sides fairly.
Middlebrooks doesn't have the qualifications of either yet just because he's much newer to the league than either, but he's expected to be a quality defensive player just like both Youkilis and Pedroia, and while his 2012 isn't a large sample, it is part of a career-long trend for Middlebrooks of success at the plate. As he's continued to develop at the plate and add to his experience against professional pitchers, his numbers have improved each season despite tougher competition. He might not draw the walks of Youkilis or Pedroia, but he puts the bat on the ball often, and with authority, and it's made him into an impressive prospect and now young major-league hitter.
It's too early for him to get the kind of extension talks that both Youkilis and Pedroia received back in 2009, but after a strong 2013, if he's as open to the idea as he sounds, the Red Sox will surely gauge his interest should they be satisfied with what their third baseman has become.