Maybe it’s just me but I’ve had some hard luck with Red Sox prospects recently. Obviously there have been a number of players who have worked out, such as Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts and even Jackie Bradley Jr., if the last season and a half are to be believed. However, two players that never reached the potential they exhibited still stick in my craw: Will Middlebrooks and Travis Shaw.
Middlebrooks was drafted in the fifth round of the 2007 draft and made his MLB debut with Boston in 2012. He came into Fenway with the swagger and build of a young Ryan Zimmerman, which had me excited at the prospect (pardon the pun) of a homegrown star at third base, something the Red Sox have lacked for years as I’ve written before. He did not disappoint in that first season, even though the team did. While the Red Sox finished dead last in the AL East (69-83), Middlebrooks slashed .288./.325/.509 while hitting 15 home runs and posting a 121 OPS+. His 1.3 bWAR that season was 11th on the team, which is a nice accomplishment for a player that got into less than half of the games. My eyes lit up at those numbers, while I ignored the fact that he struck out on 24.5 percent of his at-bats as opposed to a 4.5 percent walk rate. “He’ll figure it out,” I thought. I was wrong.
He was the usual starting third baseman for the 2013 World Series club, but he was demoted at one point while Jose Iglesias (who was later traded) took playing time away before Xander Bogaerts took his starting gig in the World Series. Although his power remained similar (.221 ISO in 2012 vs. .198 in 2013), Middlebrooks made much less contact, batting just .227/.271/.425 while swinging at 30.4 percent of pitches thrown outside the zone.
His decline continued into 2014 when he played in 64 games and couldn’t even get himself above the Mendoza Line before being traded to the Padres for Ryan Hanigan in December 2014.
The following summer saw the rise of Shaw, who hit 13 home runs in 65 games as a rookie for the Red Sox. Those dingers, his .270/.327/.487 slash line and wRC+ of 116 built expectations for the slugging lefty, who was deemed the Mayor of Ding Dong City.
Shaw’s performance with the bat mixed with the injury and poor play of Pablo Sandoval pushed him into the starting third base role early in the 2016 campaign. Although not his natural position, the hot corner was kind to Shaw at first. Through the first two months of the season he slashed .292/.358/.508 with 26 extra base hits, including seven home runs. However, he hit a wall once June came around, and hit just .205 the rest of the year. Like Middlebrooks, his power stuck around some, but still dropped considerably (.217 ISO in 2015 vs. .179 in 2016). Although his walk percentage actually rose (8.1 percent from 7.3 percent), he also struck out 25.1 percent of the time, up two percentage points from 2015.
Shaw’s decline was not nearly as dramatic as Middlebrooks’, and there is reason to believe he will turn things around, but he still followed Middlebrooks to the trade machine, as he was dealt this past December as part of the Tyler Thornburg trade.
So why am I telling you all of this? Because Sam Travis is in danger of falling into the same trap as Middlebrooks and Shaw. The 23-year-old first baseman was selected in the second round of the 2014 draft. He has hit .303 in the minors, tallying 22 home runs and an OPS of .816 as he continues to develop. After slashing .307/.381/.452 with nine home runs (and 19 steals by the way) in 2015 between three levels and then posting a 1.147 mark in the Grapefruit League in 2016, he was promoted to Pawtucket. However, he tore his ACL at the end of May, ending his season with a slash line of .272/.332/.434. Even though it was a shortened year, there were some frightening developments for Travis in 2016, as his strikeout percentage shot up by nearly 10 percentage points while his walk percentage dipped by nearly four points. Of course, as he has essentially sprinted up the line, it’s possible Travis just needs some more seasoning, but that kind of regression isn’t awesome to see, especially if he hopes to avoid following into the Middlebrooks/Shaw trajectory.
Travis recovered from his injury in plenty of time for this year’s spring training, where he is fighting for a spot on the MLB roster. Any fears about his inability to drive the ball after the injury were given some rest on Thursday when he homered in the first game of the spring, albeit against a collegiate pitcher from Northeastern. It will still take some time to see if he is 100 percent back to normal and he will more than likely open the campaign in Pawtucket, but Travis is destined to at least be given the shot to be the Red Sox first baseman of the future (sorry, Mitch Moreland). Here’s hoping he doesn’t find himself on the same path as Middlebrooks and Shaw when the opportunity presents itself.