BALTIMORE — He’s a real Nowhere Man.
Will Middlebrooks broke his right index finger trying to catch a screaming liner off the bat of Ian Kinsler May 16. Four days later, Stephen Drew signed a $10 million contract to play the rest of this season with the Red Sox.
After signing Drew, the Sox brass sat down with Xander Bogaerts and gently broke the news to the rookie that he’d be moving from shortstop to third base for the rest of the year.
Nobody in the Sox front office said anything to Middlebrooks after the Drew signing. And no one really notices him now as he travels with the Sox and hopes to be ready to DH in the minors some time soon.
Those of us who connect dots for a living assume that Middlebrooks’s days with the organization are numbered. It’s as if his time has come and gone before the age of 26.
Middlebrooks was Boston’s best hitter in spring training (.353) and Sox stat guru Bill James projected Middlebrooks to hit 32 homers with 104 RBIs this season. Now it looks as though he might be gone before the July 31 trading deadline. Drew is the shortstop, Bogaerts is the third baseman, Deven Marrero is the future, and Middlebrooks appears bound for Pawtucket or another organization.
Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington said the Sox had a pow-wow with Middlebrooks after he broke his finger. But after Drew was signed, Middlebrooks was left alone to get healthy and figure it out.
“I understand that,’’ said Middlebrooks. “I get it. It wasn’t a move where . . . I wasn’t pissed about it. I can’t be pissed about it. I understand the need. I understand what we need to win. That was what we needed. And I’ve been hurt. I feel like I’ve been healthy for like two months out of the last two years.’’
Cherington said, “We talked with Will at the time of the injury about things we wanted him to do during the down time. Until he’s physically healthy, it’s sort of hard to talk about anything else.
“When he’s doing the things he’s capable of doing, there aren’t many guys in the big leagues who can do that. So he’s clearly an asset in helping the team win when he’s healthy. That was the conversation when we put him on the DL.’’
Does Middlebrooks have a future in Boston?
“I think so,’’ said Cherington. “Look, as we all know, a lot can happen in baseball. Unexpected things happen. He’s a young guy with loads of talent and he’s already performed some in the big leagues.
“I understand, if you’re looking at these things, there’s a momentum to things and it feels like certain guys have momentum and other guys don’t. But I go back on the talent and the person, and in the long run those things usually win out. This guy has talent and wants to be good and there’s a place for that on a winning team.’’
“I want to be here and I want to be on this team,’’ said Middlebrooks, standing in front of his locker in the visitors clubhouse at Camden Yards. “I love these guys and this team and have been through so much with these guys, and it’s all I know.
“This is my third year. I want to play here. If there’s a place for me, great. If not, I’m going to have to earn one. That’s fine. Nothing’s given to you in the big leagues.’’
Not long ago, he was Red Sox Future. Only 23 years old, Middlebrooks came to the big leagues in May of the train-wreck 2012 season and hit .288 with 15 homers and 54 RBIs in only 286 plate appearances. He was one of the few positives of the Bobby Valentine season. Unfortunately, his season was cut short when he was hit by a pitch and suffered a broken wrist in early August.
It’s been one injury after another since the end of the 2012 season. Middlebrooks had back trouble in 2013, was sent to the minors a couple of times because of underperformance, but appeared strong and ready in Fort Myers this year. In April, he went on the disabled list with a calf injury. Shortly after he returned, the Kinsler liner cracked his finger.
“I feel like I have a lot of good luck coming my way,’’ said Middlebrooks. “I’m not one to make excuses, but it’s been a tough couple of years.’’
He has been lucky with relationships. Middlebrooks’s girlfriend is former NESN reporter Jenny Dell, who was hired by CBS as an NFL sideline reporter Tuesday. After being held hostage by NESN, Dell finally knows where she’s going to be working. Will Middlebrooks is not so sure.
Does he think the Sox have given up on him?
“I don’t know,’’ he answered. “That’s out of my control. It’s hard to believe in a guy that’s always hurt. I get that.
“It’s not like I’m getting hurt on purpose. That’s the frustrating part. I do everything I can to keep my body in shape. Benching. I eat right. And then I’m warming up and I tear my calf. Come on.’’
Has he asked his agent about asking the Red Sox to move him?
“I just want to focus on getting healthy,’’ said Middlebrooks. “Of course I want a spot. I want to play here. I don’t want to play anywhere else.
“It’s a tough spot. I don’t know what’s going to happen and I haven’t really asked.’’
A lot of Sox fans have put Middlebrooks in the rearview mirror.
“I know it’s happening,’’ said Middlebrooks. “It happens to everybody. That’s fine. The people that are out there crushing me — who are they? I don’t care. What people say about me doesn’t bother me. They don’t make the decisions.’’
The guy who makes the decision is wisely playing close to the vest. Trading Middlebrooks at this hour would be trading low.
“That’s baseball,’’ acknowledged Middlebrooks. “Happens to everybody. I know you want me to worry about it. I’m not going to worry about it.’’