Will Middlebrooks is spending the offseason in Boston, close to Fenway Park and Mike Boyle’s training center. Middlebrooks wants to reclaim the Red Sox’ third base job that seemed destined for him just a year ago when he drew raves for his middle-of-the-order power.
Middlebrooks’s future may be in the hands of general manager Ben Cherington, who could opt to shift Xander Bogaerts to third if he acquires a veteran shortstop or re-signs Stephen Drew. And don’t forget third base prospect Garin Cecchini, who hit a combined .322 at Single A Salem and Double A Portland this past season.
Third base was arguably the Red Sox’ worst position in 2013. Over 162 regular-season games, it produced a .242 average with 20 home runs, 79 RBIs, and a .683 OPS, the lowest of any position, including shortstop.
Despite that, Cherington believes the position could wind up being the Sox’ biggest strength. “We think, if we do nothing, we’ll get more out of third base than we did this year,” he said. “That’s our hope and expectation, given the players that are here.”
Cherington was emphatic that he considers Bogaerts a shortstop, and the organization is committed to using him there. Whether they follow through with using Bogaerts at shortstop is the big question of the offseason. That obviously affects Middlebrooks, who really can’t be sent to Triple A, because Cecchini is likely to play third for Pawtucket.
So Middlebrooks, who hit 27 homers between Pawtucket and Boston this past season, likely either gets the job or is moved. And the Red Sox brass haven’t been crazy about the thought of shifting Middlebrooks to first base.
The Red Sox, according to Cherington, are looking for help on the left side of the infield. Short of committing to a veteran such as free agent Michael Young, whom they decided not to acquire last summer because of concerns about his fielding, the Red Sox will likely choose between Middlebrooks and Bogaerts for their starter at third.
Cecchini, a lefthanded hitter, doesn’t have third base power quite yet. He hit seven homers between Salem and Portland this past season, but had 61 RBIs with a .915 OPS. Some scouts believe his power will come, as it did for former Sox third base prospect Jeff Bagwell as he developed.
There have been some trade rumblings that the Red Sox have interest in Giants third baseman Pablo Sandoval, but are they better off just seeing if Middlebrooks rebounds, or going with Bogaerts at third?
The Red Sox made room for Middlebrooks by dealing Kevin Youkilis to the White Sox in 2012. Despite a couple of injuries, Middlebrooks performed well, batting .288 with 15 homers and 54 RBIs. He had 17 homers in 348 at-bats in 2013, but struck out 98 times and did not have the plate discipline of other Red Sox hitters.
Bogaerts, however, seems to be a prototypical Red Sox hitter who grinds out at-bats and makes pitchers work.
There’s always room for a Middlebrooks-type hitter in the middle of a patient order, as long as the power numbers are there.
“It’s an important time for me,” Middlebrooks told the Globe last week. “I want to be 100 percent going to spring training. I want to have a clean slate, start over, and help this team win another one. I’ve been spending a lot of time with David [Ortiz] talking about baseball and everything else. It has really helped me.”
Middlebrooks is a work in progress, but he was humbled by his demotion to Pawtucket. He learned that adjustments are necessary for long-term success.
He realized he has to be more flexible in accepting coaching. He knows that Bogaerts is pushing him. The more Bogaerts grows, the more likely it is he’ll shift out of shortstop.
Nobody knows about that more than Middlebrooks, who was drafted as a shortstop.
Middlebrooks had adopted the right approach — take care of himself. He knows he has the talent to play third base in the major league leagues, whether it’s in Boston or elsewhere.