Eric Wilbur's Sports Blog

Where There's a Will, There's a Way Out

Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Nice season, kid.

It’s pretty easy to surmise that Will Middlebrooks’ days in a Red Sox uniform are numbered. The 2014 season has been a disaster for the third baseman, who had hoped to regain the franchise’s confidence in him in the wake of a postseason run that saw him supplanted by Xander Bogaerts. Instead, Middlebrooks, hitting .183 on the season with two home runs, and 16 RBI in 164 major league at-bats, finds himself at a career crossroads. No longer is he a young and cocky power hitter on the rise. He’s now a project, one in which the Red Sox can hope to find some semblance of the promise in the 25-year-old’s bat that has seemingly all but dried up.

“It’s, I’m sure, frustrating to him and frustrating to us to some degree because we know he has the talent to perform better,” Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington said Wednesday, a day after a lost Middlebrooks went 0-for-5 with four strikeouts – all looking – against the Yankees. “He’s got the physical tools to do that. I know the staff is trying to find ways to unlock that and he’s trying to find ways to unlock that. It hasn’t happened. He’s got to find himself as a major league hitter and we believe he will but obviously there’s a ways to go.”

A ways to go all right. To somewhere else.

Power is the ultimate commodity in baseball these days, and assuming Middlebrooks still has any, you can understand why the Red Sox don’t want to just give him away. But the 25-year-old’s bat has produced only six home runs this season between Triple-A Pawtucket and the majors. Since returning to the parent club on Aug. 1, Middlebrooks is hitting only .172 with a horrific.432 OPS. He’s walked four times in 97 plate appearances, and struck out a whopping 30 times.

It’s not like his time in Pawtucket warranted a callup, but seeing as Cherington had just traded half his roster at the July 31 deadline, the team needed warm bodies, even one that managed to hit only .231 with a .277 on-base percentage in the minors. He’s played in only 47 games this year at the major league level, partly thanks to a fractured index finger that sidelined him in May. Partly because of the emergence of everybody’s favorite spark plug Brock Holt. Partly because the Red Sox thought Stephen Drew was a good idea, moving Bogaerts to third, and partly because Middlebrooks looked like he belonged in a Bugs Bunny baseball cartoon more than he did professional baseball most of the time.

It’s no surprise then that the Red Sox have told Middlebrooks that they would like him to consider playing winter ball in order to regain some the confidence that he’s clearly lost at the plate. It’s a last gasp for sure. It’s impossible to predict what kind of player Middlebrooks can still be for Boston, or anyone else. He hit 32 home runs in his first 169 major league games, a period over two seasons that was interrupted by a fractured wrist. His OPS also went from .835 in 2012 to .696 last season to its current low point of .520 in 2014.

Can his rookie season of 2012 still be considered a promise? Or is it now simply cemented as a flash in the pan?

It sure seems like the latter.

“I want to end the year on a high note,” Middlebrooks said last month after he was recalled from Pawtucket. “It just doesn’t benefit me but the organization as well. If I do well it takes worries off my mind and theirs. It gives me confidence to go forward and they’re able to make the tough decisions they have to make. I understand that I’m in the center of it and I need to perform like I envisioned and like they envisioned me performing.”

The problem is, nobody knows what to envision. The assumption on Middlebrooks is that he’s the player who slugged 15 home runs in 267 at-bats under Bobby Valentine in 2012. The Red Sox gave him the job at the age of 23 after two months in the bigs, and it’s been mostly frustration since. Nobody is expecting him to be Miguel Cabrera, but a guy who could potentially give you 25 home runs isn’t anything to scoff at, particularly in an era when 38 dingers may win you a home run crown. Hey, Phil Plantier showed promise too, but it wasn’t until he landed in San Diego in 1993 did it translate into a 34-home run, 100 RBI season. And then…well, nothing much after that.

“I think there’s been times when he’s trying to think along with a given pitcher and anticipating a certain kind of pitch and a certain location and it’s not quite there. At times, that might be the reason why he’s not pulled the trigger on some pitches,” Red Sox manager John Farrell told reporters Wednesday. “We came off a series in Tampa where I thought he swung the bat very well with some authority back through the middle of the field, certainly to right-center field as well. But the early work, the work routine, that all remains consistent. It’s a matter of doing it in-game.”

With a sudden gluttony of outfielders (Yoenis Cespedes, Allen Craig, Jackie Bradley, Jr., Shane Victorino, and Rusney Castillo) lined up for 2015 (and that’s not including Giancarlo Stanton…yet), Cherington was asked about the possibility of Mookie Betts perhaps moving to the left side of the infield, which might be a more natural fit for the second baseman-turned-outfielder-in-a-pinch. The fact that his answer wasn’t dismissive is revealing.

"I wouldn't rule anything out moving forward," Cherington said. "He's been an infielder for most of his life, but we think he can be a good player. And obviously given that he's had less reps in the outfield, he's made quick improvement out there. It looks like he's going to be plenty good to play out there if that's where the opportunity is. We're not going to rule anything out.
"We haven't had that discussion. "I think, obviously, he signed as a shortstop, moved to second base, got very comfortable there, and then moved to the outfield this year. We have a lot of confidence in his ability to play second and the outfield, and obviously we think he's going to be a really good defensive player and a good baserunner. We haven't discussed the left side of the infield yet. I don't expect to. I guess I can't completely rule it out. I don't expect to. We'll likely focus on either one of the outfield spots or second base, and obviously on this team, second base is hopefully locked up."

But third definitely isn’t, and Middlebrooks is on his last chance. He’s done nothing so far to prove he should still be here, which means, come April, he most likely won’t be.

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