One year ago today, Will Middlebrooks was just about the best thing the Sox had going for them. Buried underneath terrible contracts, mismanaged by he-who-shall-not-be-named to the point of insurrection, and staring up at every other team in the AL East, one of the only bright spots was the rookie third baseman who was hitting everything, often out of the park.
It's taken about two months of bad results to completely extinguish that shining beacon of hope, turning Middlebrooks from a future star into an utter failure. At least, that's the feeling you get if you listen to the chatter in comment sections, on Twitter, on the streets, the airwaves, or in bars.
In fairness to the Red Sox fanbase, the minority can often be quite vocal. When Will Middlebrooks strikes out, there is reason for his detractors to complain, and it always takes less effort and motivation to complain than it does to defend.
Also in fairness to the Red Sox fanbase, there are extenuating circumstances to this sudden mood swing. Nothing encourages fans to forget past promise and performance faster than a fresh new option. That's what happened last year when Kevin Youkilis was himself ousted--or, rather, denied his place upon return from the disabled list (a familiar situation, no?) in favor of Middlebrooks.
So who are these new arrivals? Well, only one of them has made the jump to Boston so far, and he doesn't even play the position! But with Jose Iglesias surprising everyone with his offensive performance and Steven Drew more than holding his own since the end of April, it's not hard to understand why many Sox fans would rather stick with the winning combination than give Middlebrooks another shot at third.
That's a one-year situation, though, given Drew's contract. The future, though, has even greater temptation in two of Boston's hottest prospects down in Portland and Salem: Xander Bogaerts and Garin Cecchini. Bogaerts has big natural power, and has shown some impressive discipline this season that we hadn't seen in years past. He was one of baseball's top, top prospects even before these last 50 games, which have seen him hit .310/.404/.510 (with five triples and five stolen bases, no less, just in case he felt the need to hint at having yet another tool). Now the 20-year-old looks ready for Triple-A. He can play short, but scouts have long expected him to be destined for third base. Add in Jose Iglesias at short, and you've got an obvious hot seat for Middlebrooks.
Garin Cecchini's positional situation is similar, but with less suggestion of playing a mediocre shortstop. If you ignored the fact that Cecchini is 22 and one league behind Xander in his progression (a pre-draft injury followed by a fluke broken wrist on a hit by pitch have helped keep his progression between levels slow), he's actually had the better season. Hitting .348/.464/.554 is ridiculous enough in its own right, but when you consider that there's only one other batter in the entire Carolina League with an OPS over .850 (Robby Heffinger with .937), it's downright ridiculous. If Cecchini is not pressing the issue, he serves as a fourth body to add to that fight for two spots, making it all the harder for some fans to see a spot for Middlebrooks.
Here's the funny thing: not a one of them has proven themselves in the majors as much as Will Middlebrooks has.
Oh, I'll give you, Jose Iglesias is doing some silly stuff right now for the Red Sox. He's not even getting by on exclusively cheap hits these days, leaving he park for the first time this season and spraying quite a few line drives around the field. But he's been doing that for about 40 plate appearances at most (that first stint was almost exclusively flukey hits). That is a ridiculously short period of time, and thanks to his previous 83 trips to the plate, his career wOBA still stands at a measly .306. Yes, his glove is unreasonably good, but let's not make Iglesias out to be something he is not.
And let's also recognize the fact that through his first 50-or-so at bats in 2012, Middlebrooks' OPS was over 1.000.
Of course, nothing really needs to be said about Bogaerts or Cecchini in this department. Each one is a huge talent, and the Red Sox are certainly a much healthier organization for having them in the system (particularly Bogaerts). But neither one has so much as made the 40-man roster. They remain, for all their excellence, prospects.
Does Will have problems? Absolutely. He can't seem to figure out how to approach any given plate appearance these days, and while the sample sizes are small, anybody who's watched him try to hit out of a hole will understand why he's hitting just .115/.129/.180 in at bats where he's behind in the count, and .093/.134/.178 with two strikes to his name. It's the sort of thing that suggests a mental problem as much as one of discipline, the young third baseman trying ever harder to avoid another failure the closer it comes. Of course without the ability to read minds, we are limited to speculation.
No matter how bad the numbers, though, it's still just two months. After a wrist injury, no less. If we let two months condemn a player with serious talent, Clay Buchholz would be in Texas. Jon Lester would be a Twin. And while I'm sure nobody was really thinking too hard about numbers like this at the time, Ted Williams started his career hitting .254/.303/.430 over 122 plate appearances in a league and on a team where Boston's .800 OPS was good for only a 100 OPS+
Will Middlebrooks ain't Ted Williams. He's also not Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester unless his career takes a rather dramatic turn. But he's very likely a good player who's just found himself in a rut at exactly the wrong moment.
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