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Will Middlebrooks for Ryan Hanigan isn't a minor trade for Red Sox or Padres anymore

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What looked like a convenient buy-low piece exchanged for a bench player has maybe turned into a trade with major implications for both the Red Sox and Padres.

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On December 19, 2014, the Red Sox traded Will Middlebrooks to the Padres for Ryan Hanigan. The deal was all but ignored, noted for existing but then almost immediately forgotten about by fans from both teams. It wasn't anything against either Middlebrooks or Hanigan, so much as the trade occurred at the height of the offseason, when the Padres were in the midst of introducing a slew of new faces, all of them more established and, admittedly, more exciting to the average fan than Middlebrooks. As for Hanigan, he was on the Padres for around 10 minutes: he was dealt from the Rays to San Diego earlier that day as part of the Wil Myers trade, and then flipped to Boston in a separate trade.

The Red Sox got a backup catcher, the Padres a post-hype youth to potentially man third base. It looked like the Sox might have been forced to sell low on Middlebrooks, with general manager Ben Cherington even admitting that they were sort of forced into moving 2014's Opening Day third baseman after signing free agent Pablo Sandoval to a five-year, $95 million deal. Forced, in part, by Middlebrooks' consecutive disappointing seasons that made paying for an established solution necessary. Hanigan was a useful piece to help ease Christian Vazquez into the starting catcher role in Boston and also bridge the gap between the start of 2015 and the time top prospect Blake Swihart was ready, but that was about it. Solid, useful, but unexciting.

As for Middlebrooks and the Padres, while he still had promise, there was a whole lot of offseason left for new -- and very, very busy -- general manager A.J. Preller to make another move. The Padres were still hoping to land Cuban free agent Hector Olivera for either third or second base, which could have pushed out Middlebrooks once more. After landing Matt Kemp, Wil Myers, Derek Norris, Justin Upton, and eventually James Shields all in one offseason, it wouldn't have surprised anyone if Preller made one more move to shore up a spot in the infield even if they didn't land Olivera. Hey, the Dodgers had already made one deal with the division-rival Padres earlier that winter, and between Juan Uribe, Justin Turner, Alex Guerrero, and Olivea, whom they eventually signed, they were overflowing with options.

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Photo credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Things changed for both sides, though. The Padres didn't get Olivera or anyone else, so they had to decide whether they would platoon Middlebrooks or second baseman Jedd Gyorko with switch-hitting utility man Yangeris Solarte. They chose Gyorko, who had batted just .210/.280/.333 in 2014 after a promising rookie campaign, freeing up third base for Middlebrooks full-time. The Red Sox lost Vazquez to Tommy John surgery late in spring training, making Ryan Hanigan the starting catcher instead of just a backup who could be replaced whenever Swihart finished pummeling Triple-A pitchers. As they only had journeyman Humberto Quintero and traded for career backup Sandy Leon before the season's start, Hanigan's 2015 coming entirely in Boston was suddenly all but assured.

Now, three weeks into the season, the importance of this unassuming December trade shines through even brighter. Middlebrooks has played in all 17 of the Padres games, and is batting .254/.288/.476. That might not sound impressive with that on-base percentage, but remember, those of the Fenway persuasion, that Petco Park is hell for hitters: Middlebrooks has been a well above-average hitter, with a 117 wRC+ that looks a lot like his promising rookie campaign. He's striking out, but 24 percent of the time, not at an alarming rate, and has three homers and seven extra-base hits, with two of those dingers going the opposite way, and another to deep left-center off of former teammate Jon Lester. When Middlebrooks is at his best, his opposite field power is on display.

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Photo credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Middlebrooks has shown plenty of promise for a few weeks at a time before, as the Red Sox and their fans are well aware of, but also know precisely why they were so excited for stretches like this as well. Middlebrooks has serious big-league power, and while he's going to swing-and-miss and he's not going to walk, there is still potential for an above-average bat at third complemented by solid defense. He's been that guy for the Padres early, and they need him to be that guy going forward: San Diego's pitching is great, but the defense is going to be in question barring defensive upgrades, so runs, runs, and more runs is the solution.

As for Hanigan, he's not much of a hitter, but that's not why he's employed. Hanigan is a wonderful defensive catcher who can also bat successfully against lefties, and he's capable of seeing a whole lot of pitches and drawing walks. His end of season line isn't going to be pretty, and his current .395 on-base percentage, while not a career-high, is best-case scenario territory. However, from 2013 through 2015, he's had a .319 on-base percentage -- right around the league average for any position, never mind the offensively challenged catcher -- and is at .354 for his career. If he's just what he's always been, he'll be valuable to the Red Sox. And he has to be, too: Leon is a backup who can defend but can't hit much, and Swihart might not be ready until the end of the year.

Combined, Middlebrooks and Hanigan are just 30 games in to 2015, but they are already showing how valuable they can be to their respective new teams. There are plenty of reasons to believe this is not who either player is going to be going forward, but it's also fair to expect that they can continue to be valuable in the same way they've been to this point in the year: with the NL West and AL East as competitive as expected already, the Padres and Red Sox could use a whole lot more of the latter.

Who knew back in mid-December, during the Padres' whirlwind week that put them back on the map, and after the Red Sox had already made their major free agent splashes, that this little trade would turn out to be such a big deal for both teams? Even the general managers who made the swap might not have been aware, but you can be sure that right now, they're both glad they did.