JUPITER, Fla. - The feeling is that Will Middlebrooks is going to make it to the big leagues.
The question is, when?
The way Middlebrooks looks defensively at third base - with one of the best arms in the organization - his ETA to Boston could be late this season.
Middlebrooks, 23, has gotten a nice taste of big league camp, starting Thursday against the Cardinals, although he struck out in his first two at-bats.
Like many young players, Middlebrooks has struggled at each promotion before catching up to the speed of the game and excelling.
To say the Texarkana, Texas, native is completely there yet isn’t realistic. No chance. Not when he was overmatched by Cardinals lefthander Jamie Garcia in his first at-bat. But in an age where it has become difficult to find legitimate power-hitting, good-fielding third basemen, the Sox seem to have one.
At first sight, he has an Evan Longoria look about him. Whether he reaches that level remains to be seen.
Scouts are somewhat divided, some believing Middlebrooks will be an All-Star, others feeling he will be an average hitter with a good glove.
“Whenever the organization feels I’m ready I’m good with,’’ Middlebrooks said. “I completely trust their judgment on that. What I have to do is concentrate on becoming a better player wherever I am. If I do that, then that will make their decision easier.’’
Middlebrooks said Kevin Youkilis - the third baseman he might replace someday - has been a big help.
“I don’t look at it that way at all,’’ said Middlebrooks. “We’re a big family here. Nobody is in it thinking, ‘I’m going to take this guy’s place,’ or anything like that.
“All I know is, Youk has been very helpful to me. He’s taken me aside and we’ve talked about the game and the little things that will help me make my job easier. I’ve gotten so much out of it and I appreciate that a player of that caliber has taken the time to spend time with me with the knowledge that he has.’’
Youkilis has a $13 million option on his contract, and as of now there have been no negotiations. The feeling is that if Youkilis struggles again with injuries this season, the Sox might make the leap to Middlebrooks.
It certainly appears that Youkilis’s future is linked to how quickly Middlebrooks progresses at Pawtucket this season.
“His arm and his fielding will get him there, because he’s a good player defensively,’’ said an American League scout. “He needs more consistency with his hitting, but it sure looks as if he works hard at it.
“It’s not something that comes naturally to him, but if he works at it, you can see, where he’s a big kid - about 6-4, 225 pounds - that he’s going to hit for some power at that position.’’
Last year, Middlebrooks hit .161 in 56 at-bats at Pawtucket with 2 homers and 8 RBIs. That was after a fine performance at Double A Portland (.302, 18 HRs, 80 RBIs in 371 at-bats). He battled a right triceps strain in June that took almost three weeks out of his season.
He also played in the Arizona Fall League, to mixed reviews. Nothing really stood out except his fielding. He hit .250 with 4 HRs and 11 RBIs in 13 games for the Scottsdale Scorpions and was named an “AFL Rising Star.’’
The Sox have had a long line of homegrown third basemen, going back as far back as Frank Malzone. There was Rico Petrocelli (converted from shortstop), Butch Hobson, Wade Boggs, Scott Cooper, and Shea Hillenbrand, and Youkilis.
That’s not a bad group.
Middlebrooks is not Boggs, who had to repeat Double A and Triple A before he got his chance to play in the majors at age 23, even after hitting .318 in the minors. Hobson hit .286 with 25 homers and 72 RBIs at Pawtucket in 1976 before getting the job in Boston in 1977.
Cooper spent two seasons at Pawtucket, where he hit .266 and .277, before coming up for good at age 24 and earning two All-Star nods in a seven-year career.
Hillenbrand hit .323 with 11 homers and 79 RBIs at Double A Trenton before getting the call in 2001. He had two impressive seasons in Boston, hitting .263 with 12 homers and 49 RBIs as a rookie and then .293 with 18 homers and 83 RBIs in his second season, a year highlighted by him starting at third in the All-Star Game.
Which one does Middlebrooks most resemble? Maybe none of the above.
Until he separates himself, we won’t know.
“I just think I need to see as much live pitching as possible,’’ Middlebrooks said. “I need to play, make my adjustments against each pitcher in each game, and build on that, game after game.
“I think that’s what proving yourself means. There are no shortcuts here. You earn it.’’
One fly in the ointment for Middlebrooks is if he doesn’t have a good year at Pawtucket and Youkilis has a strong bounce-back season.
Another option is to deal Middlebrooks to fill another need, as the Sox did with Jeff Bagwell, who was shipped to the Astros for reliever Larry Andersen in 1990.
The late Lou Gorman was pilloried for the trade, but Bagwell hit only six homers in four minor league seasons - then hit 449 with the Astros.
“It’s just too early to see what he is,’’ said an American League scout who watched Middlebrooks at Portland often last season. “But if you look at the learning curve, it’s always upward.
“He got his feet wet in Triple A late last season, and now he should have a strong season there.’’
And then, it’s up to him.