FORT MYERS, Fla. — David Ross arrived at the Red Sox clubhouse at 6:15 on Thursday morning. As he passed the weight room, he noticed third baseman Will Middlebrooks was already working out.
When the media was allowed into the clubhouse a few hours later, Middlebrooks was walking out as the door opened. The cameras focused on others.
“There’s a certain mentality you want to see in a younger player,” said Ross, who judges character well after 12 seasons of catching in the majors. “Is he getting after it or just talking about getting after it? Will is definitely getting after it.”
Middlebrooks has reached a career crossroads at the age of 25. Is he the same promising power hitter who sparked the Red Sox as a rookie in 2012 or the easily distracted player who twice lost his job and was demoted in 2013?
The Red Sox will get that answer this season. Such tests are not untimed.
“Sometimes you get that kick in the butt,” first baseman Mike Napoli said. “When you’re going good, this game is so fun. It’s how you take the rough times that matter. I think Will’s done a good job. If you asked me now, I’d say I’m proud of him.”
That question didn’t always get the same answer last season. Middlebrooks started the season batting fifth and was optioned to Pawtucket in June. He returned in August and hit well but lost his spot again in the postseason when Xander Bogaerts took over third base starting with Game 5 of the American League Championship Series.
Middlebrooks played in one game in the World Series. He celebrated when the Red Sox won but wondered whether he had earned the right to.
“It doesn’t feel good to be told you’re not good enough. It changes how you feel about yourself,” he said. “But I don’t feel like that anymore. I have great teammates who stuck with me and helped me get through a tough year.
“It was tough because I wanted to be more of a part of it and help us out. I’m not going to get down about it because we won the World Series. That’s something I can always say. But I’m here now to prove I should have my spot.”
Manager John Farrell, a bearer of harsh truths last season, sees a difference.
“Will comes in with some added determination, some added motivation based on what he went through last year,” he said. “Injuries contributed to the challenges from a year ago. Inconsistent performance was part of it. To me, in conversation and watching his work, his concentration and determination is not only what we anticipated, but hoped for.”
In two seasons and only 615 at-bats, Middlebrooks has hit .254 with 32 home runs and 103 RBIs. The Sox want to see better pitch selection at the plate and more attention to detail in the field. But the talent that made Middlebrooks one of the organization’s top prospects two years ago hasn’t changed.
Among righthanded hitters the last two seasons, the only younger players with more home runs than Middlebrooks are Wilin Rosario, Giancarlo Stanton, Mike Trout, and Dayan Viciedo. All four have far more at-bats.
That kind of power has value.
“It’s hard to find,” general manager Ben Cherington said. “Raw power from line to line in any ballpark, there’s just not a lot of guys who can do that. When you have that, we have a responsibility to nurture it and help him work towards being a more complete player and someone we can rely on. He’s focused on that. That’s what he’s working on.”
On Thursday, Middlebrooks hit several balls 50 feet over the fence in left field during batting practice. Those watching in the crowd of 2,379 at Fenway South applauded.
The muscle Middlebrooks added in the offseason is evident in how well he controls his swing and is quick to the ball. That also will cut down on the back problems that helped derail his second season.
Middlebrooks stayed in Boston over the winter, working out at Fenway Park or with team consultant Mike Boyle. Other lessons came outside the weight room.
“I knew how important baseball was to the city,” he said. “But I had people wanting to shake my hand and say thank you because of what we did off the field, too. It was a tough year for the city with everything that happened and we helped that. That registered with me.
“I made a 180. I’m a different person now. A lot has happened in two years and I saw both sides of it. Last place, first place, good year personally and a bad year personally. I gained a lot of experience. Talk is cheap. If you work hard, guys will respect you.”
Middlebrooks has no guarantees. But the Red Sox electing not to re-sign Stephen Drew is a sign they’re willing to give Middlebrooks another chance at claiming third base.
Retaining Drew and moving Bogaerts to third offered some degree of certainty. But Cherington is gambling the Sox can do better.
“The talent is going to allow Will to be a really good player,” said Cherington. “He’s just got to go about his work every day and that’s what he’s doing. He’s certainly not a finished produce and he knows that. The arrow is pointing up, in our estimation.”