Where does Will Middlebrooks stand on the Red Sox roster? Right now, it is hard to say. But with two free agents among the 2013 infield regulars, his status is definitely important.
A year ago at this time, the 25-year-old was projected as the Sox' regular third baseman. But partly becacuse of injuries and partly because of a "sophomore jinx", things this winter are not so clear.
No one can deny that Middlebrooks has the tools. A three-sport star in high school in Texarkana, Texas, he pitched and played shortstop, leading his team to the 3A state championship as a junior. The following year, he hit .555 with a 90 mph fastball and won several state honors. In football, he played quarterback, punted and placekicked. He committed to Texas A & M for baseball and football, but after the Sox drafted him as a position player, he decided to forego college.
Middlebrooks' minor league career started a bit slowly, as he transitioned from short to third. He began to blossom as a hitter at AA Portland in 2011, batting .306 with with 18 homers and 80 rbi's. Heading into 2012, Baseball America rated him as Boston's best prospect. When he started hot at Pawtucket, Middlebrooks was called up and soon won the third base job. One of the few bright spots in a sad season, he hit .326 with 34 rbi's in his first 41 games, the most to start a career on the Sox since 1950. His season would end on August 10 when he broke a bone in his right hand. Still, his rookie stats were impressive-.288, 15 homers, 54 ribbies.
The Townies' great start in 2013 did not involve Middlebrooks, however. He did have a three-homer game in April at Toronto, but as he battled a back injury, his average stayed in the low .200's. By late June he was down to .192 and back in Pawtucket. He returned in August, but never really came back to form. He finished at .227, though he did show some power with 18 doubles and 17 homers. He was a starter in the ALDS, but was later benched in favor of Xander Bogearts.
This will be an important year for Middlebrooks. The Sox must face the possibility of losing Stephen Drew, Mike Napoli or both in the free agent market. Since he is a fine fielder and all-around athlete, he might fit in at either first or third. He seems to have a fine attitude, an important trait in John Farrell's dugout.
But which is the real Will Middlebrooks, the rookie flash of 2012 or the struggling hitter of 2013? Only time will tell.