FORT MYERS, Fla. — It ranks among the most puzzling questions facing the Boston Red Sox this season: Who exactly is Will Middlebrooks?
If Middlebrooks plays to the level of his promising rookie season, the Red Sox will have an All-Star-caliber third baseman. But if he struggles the way he did last year, well, the Sox will be looking for an alternative, and Middlebrooks knows it.
“I had an awful year,” Middlebrooks said of a 2013 season in which he spent seven weeks in Triple-A and was benched during the World Series. “I learned a lot more last year than I did my first year when I hit .290. It’s just part of it, part of growing as a player.”
In 2012, success was almost immediate for Middlebrooks, who got called up in May to replace injured veteran Kevin Youkilis and never went back to the minors. He hit 15 homers, slugged .509 and posted an .835 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in 267 at-bats. He would have gained far more experience if not for a broken wrist that sidelined him for the season’s final two months.
Middlebrooks was a bright spot in an otherwise dreary season for the Sox under manager Bobby Valentine, and when last season began, new skipper John Farrell had him penciled in as a middle-of-the-order power threat.
However, pitchers adjusted to Middlebrooks faster than he adjusted to them. Despite a three-homer game in Toronto early in April, Middlebrooks was batting .192 and had lost his grip on the third base job by mid-June, when he was sent to Triple-A Pawtucket.
After returning to the majors in August, Middlebrooks batted .276 and slugged .476 with eight homers and an .805 OPS in 145 at-bats. Then a miserable postseason slump prompted Farrell to bench Middlebrooks in favor of rookie Xander Bogaerts before Game 5 of the AL Championship Series against the Detroit Tigers. Middlebrooks barely played again en route to the Red Sox winning the World Series.
“I don’t know if I accepted it,” Middlebrooks said. “It sucks not to be able to help your team out especially if we’re in the playoffs or in the World Series. No one wants to accept that.”
Still, the Red Sox insist they haven’t lost faith in Middlebrooks. They weren’t aggressive in trying to re-sign Stephen Drew, leaving Bogaerts as the shortstop and Middlebrooks as the projected opening day third baseman. And Farrell continues to express confidence in Middlebrooks, even though the 25-year-old’s defense has been shaky at times throughout spring training.
For Middlebrooks, it represents another chance to prove himself.
“I talked to Pedey (second baseman Dustin Pedroia), all these guys in here and they said, ‘We’ve all been through it, we’ve all struggled,’” said Middlebrooks, who recently dealt with a hyperextended right middle finger that wasn’t expected to keep him from being ready for the season. “At this level, it’s going to happen at one point or another. It’s a select few guys who haven’t, those guys you see with a plaque in Cooperstown. Even those guys — look at David (Ortiz), as great as he is, he’s had months where he didn’t do well. It’s just part of the game. Those pitchers are out there for a reason. You just have to stay as consistent as you can.”