Formerly considered a likely long-term fixture at third base for the Boston Red Sox, Will Middlebrooks is getting a much-needed fresh start with a new club for which he has a chance to fill the hot corner role in 2015.
On Thursday, the Red Sox traded the 26-year-old Middlebrooks to San Diego for veteran catcher Ryan Hanigan. The teams agreed on the deal’s framework early in the day but did not announce the transaction until late last night once Boston’s former top overall prospect passed his physical in San Diego.
Though the Padres have reworked their outfield this week by acquiring Matt Kemp, Justin Upton and Wil Myers in separate moves; and they acquired a starting catcher in Derek Norris from the Oakland A’s, they still wanted to upgrade at third base where Yangervis Solarte was projected as the Opening Day starter.
Middlebrooks is not a sure bet to produce, but the Padres believe he can fulfill the 25 home run, 100 RBI annual potential the Red Sox anticipated in the fifth round pick out of a Texas high school in 2007. The right-handed slugger belted 15 home runs with 57 RBI, a .288 average and a .835 OPS in 286 plate appearances in his first taste of Major League action for Boston in 2012. A hand injury abruptly ended his rookie campaign, and he has struggled since.
Though he clubbed 17 home runs in 374 plate appearances and saw time as the starting third baseman in Boston’s 2013 World Series victory over the St. Louis Cardinals, Middlebrooks batted just .227 that year with a .696 OPS and 98 strikeouts. The Red Sox were not pleased with his plate discipline and his penchant for swinging at pitches outside of the strike zone.
Last season, Middlebrooks’ decline escalated. He hit .191 with two home runs, a .522 OPS and 70 strikeouts in 234 plate appearances at the Major League level and .231 with four home runs, a .652 OPS and 30 strikeouts in 112 plate appearances at Triple-A Pawtucket. Injuries hampered his progress as he was limited to 63 games by a fractured finger, a strained calf and a severely bruised hand.
Since Opening Day in 2013, Middlebrooks is tied for the fourth-worst on-base percentage among all hitters with 500 or more plate appearances at .265. Only free agent catchers J.P. Arencibia (.231) and Jose Molina (.264) and Nationals infielder Danny Espinosa (.255) have lower OBPs.
The Red Sox could have stashed Middlebrooks at Pawtucket. He has one option remaining. Yet the club signed veteran third baseman Pablo Sandoval to a five-year, $95 million contract earlier this offseason, and 23-year-old Garin Cecchini is a highly regarded prospect slated to open the 2015 campaign at third base for Pawtucket. Middlebrooks could have been moved to first base, but the Red Sox have Travis Shaw, a 24-year-old left-handed hitter who they would like to further develop.
In Hanigan, the Red Sox get a 34-year-old catcher who is well-respected for his defense and signal calling. While Middlebrooks is one year away from arbitration, Hanigan will receive $3.5 million in 2015 and $3.7 million in 2016 with a $3.75 million team option or an $800,000 buyout for 2017.
The veteran will serve as a backup catcher and a mentor to 24-year-old Christian Vazquez, who made his Major League debut last season and drew tremendous praise for his strong, quick and accurate throwing arm; his defense behind the plate and his work with pitchers. Vazquez is slated to start for the Red Sox in 2015. The club also has top catching prospect Blake Swihart, a 22-year-old switch-hitter projected to open 2015 behind the plate at Pawtucket.
Like Middlebrooks, Hanigan has battled injuries over the last two seasons. He spent the first seven years of his Major League career with Cincinnati, and in 2013 he was limited to 75 games, batting .198 with a .567 OPS in 260 plate appearances. A trade sent him to Tampa Bay, where he batted .218 with five home runs, 34 RBI and a .642 OPS in 85 games and 263 plate appearances. Those numbers are a marked decline from when he hit .300 over 243 plate appearances in 2010 and .274 in a career-high 371 plate appearances in 2012.
With Vazquez poised to embark on his first full season as the Red Sox starting catcher, Hanigan will likely serve a role similar to what David Ross filled over the last two years. Ross signed a free agent deal on Thursday with the Chicago Cubs.