If it was any other season, chances are Red Sox third baseman Will Middlebrooks would be a frontrunner for American League Rookie of the Year. It is 2012, though, and that honor is already seized by 21-year-old Angels phenom Mike Trout, who is also an AL MVP candidate. Regardless, what Middlebrooks has done in his brief Major League tenure is historic.
Widely known as Boston’s top overall prospect entering the season, the 23-year-old Middlebrooks has 15 home runs, 54 RBI, a .292 average and a .841 OPS in 264 at-bats. Who is the only other player in Red Sox history to stroke 15 home runs and 54 RBIs in his first 73 games Major League games? Some guy by the name of Ted Williams.
It has mostly been a forgettable year for the Red Sox. They are 55-58 and fading out of contention for an AL wild card spot. Talk about the team this season tends to center around the antics of manager Bobby Valentine and the failures of starting pitchers Jon Lester and Josh Beckett. Yet Middlebrooks has given the organization a source of optimism.
Like Trout, Middlebrooks did not open the year in the bigs. He hit .333 with nine home runs, 27 RBI, .677 slugging percentage and 1.057 OPS in 93 at-bats at Pawtucket. When Kevin Youkilis struggled with injuries and ineffectiveness, Middlebrooks was called up on May 2, when he was 2-for-3 with a double and a walk in his Major League debut against Oakland.
In his four months with the Red Sox, Middlebrooks has found himself in the midst of media firestorms. The first happened when Youkilis was activated from the disabled list and a debate ensued over who should play third base. To keep Middlebrooks’ scorching bat in the lineup, Valentine played Youkilis at first and the lumbering Adrian Gonzalez (who is a Gold Glove first baseman) in right field.
Tension, that started in spring training when Valentine publicly questioned Youkilis’ desire to play the game, continued between the two after the veteran returned from the DL. Eventually, Youkilis was benched in favor of Middlebrooks and traded to the White Sox, opening a full-time spot at third for the rookie without the Youkilis-Valentine circus.
Middlebrooks saw more unwanted media coverage recently when, after the rookie made two shoddy plays in the field, he was greeted in the dugout by Valentine, who apparently said, “Nice inning, Will.” Media reports indicate that a source from the Red Sox dugout told ownership about Valentine’s remark, and the manager was admonished.
Even with the Youkilis situation, and the drama created by his manager, Middlebrooks appears unflappable and poised beyond his age.
The athletic Middlebrooks was a fifth round pick in 2007 out of Liberty-Eylau High School in Texarkana, Tx., where he was a shortstop and pitcher on the baseball team and a quarterback, place kicker and punter in football. Middlebrooks was so talented at baseball and basketball that Texas A&M offered him a scholarship to play both sports.
Middlebrooks was projected as a first rounder, but because of his college option, Middlebrooks slipped to the fifth round, where The Red Sox lured him with a $925,000 signing bonus.
Though it is evident that Middlebrooks will not taste post-season baseball in his rookie year, he is an integral part of Boston’s future. The Red Sox have young veterans Adrian Gonzalez and Dustin Pedroia signed long term. Ryan Lavarnway, who was Boston’s 2011 Co-Minor League Offensive Player of the Year and was recently named the best catcher in the International League in a Baseball America poll of IL managers, was just called up to the Red Sox and will likely make the opening day roster next spring. Xander Bogaerts – who is 19, one of the top prospects in baseball and was just promoted to Double-A Portland – is a shortstop on the fast track to Fenway Park.
Bogaerts has tremendous upside like Middlebrooks, and he projects as a middle of the order bat, but Middlebrooks has set the ceiling high for future Red Sox prospects to reach in their Major League debut season.