Like the Red Sox themselves, NESN had to fill some significant holes in its lineup this offseason.
But unlike the Red Sox, whose roster-building approach sometimes looks suspiciously like a tribute to the television program “The Leftovers,” the team’s local television home has found familiar names to add to its broadcast booth.
Lou Merloni, the former Red Sox utility infielder and longtime host at sports radio WEEI, is joining NESN’s cast of color analysts. So is Will Middlebrooks, the former Sox third baseman who debuted with NESN as a studio analyst last season.
Merloni and Middlebrooks will join holdovers Kevin Youkilis and Kevin Millar in the rotation. Tim Wakefield, who has been a studio analyst since 2012, the season after the knuckleballer’s retirement, will also contribute for an unspecified number of games as a third voice, providing a pitcher’s perspective.
Youkilis, in his second season in the Red Sox booth, will be the primary color analyst, with a workload expected to be around 70 games. Millar was part of approximately 20 broadcasts last season and is expected to have a similar amount in 2023. There is a possibility that NESN adds another analyst or two to the mix.
Dave O’Brien is back for his eighth season as NESN’s primary play-by-play voice and his 17th calling Red Sox games in total. Mike Monaco will also call play-by-play from time to time, and Jahmai Webster is back for his fifth season as the in-game reporter.
Merloni was let go as a host from WEEI at the end of December when his contract was not renewed, but he did reach a deal to be part of the station’s Red Sox radio broadcasts for 50-60 games this season. With the additional NESN assignment, he will call 90-95 games this season.
“The best way to describe it is [being at Fenway in the broadcast booth] is my happy place,” said Merloni, who worked with O’Brien in the past on WEEI’s Red Sox broadcasts, including the 2013 World Series. “I just love doing the games. So to have the opportunity to focus on baseball and work at NESN, I’m really excited about it and it’s something I’ve wanted to do for some time.
“Between the two of them, it will be really good. I’ll be busy. I’m looking forward to that just to wake up and just do baseball rather than talking about [Bill] Belichick or Jayson Tatum against Golden State or something. Sometimes [with the radio show] it felt like I was more of a football analyst than I was for baseball the past five or six years.”
NESN had the openings because Dennis Eckersley retired in October after 20 distinctive years as a color analyst. He worked 75 games last season, and his departure left a huge void for NESN — not to mention for Red Sox fans who appreciated Eck’s irreverent, insightful style — as it prepared for 2023.
NESN also made the decision not to bring back Tony Massarotti, leaving another swath of games (he worked in the vicinity of 40 last year) in need of a color analyst.
Middlebrooks is a logical choice to move into the booth. He’s just 34, has an easygoing, self-deprecating style, and is well-informed as a national MLB analyst for CBS Sports, a role he has had since 2019 and will continue to hold. He got a four-game call-up to the booth during a series with the Orioles late last season, and it went well.
“About two weeks before that Baltimore series, [NESN] was like, ‘How do you feel about jumping in for a couple of games?’ ” said Middlebrooks. “And I was like, ‘Can I have all four?’ I had to get a little greedy. But they let me do it, and I’m glad they did because it was as much fun as I hoped it would be.”
Middlebrooks will still work around 40 games in a studio role, on top of the 25 or so games in which he expects to be in the booth. He worked with Eckersley in that Baltimore series and said the Hall of Famer gave him some welcome advice.
“Eck told me just to be myself, because that’s part of why they hired me, and to never stop learning. That was the biggest thing,” said Middlebrooks, who was a member of the Red Sox’ 2013 World Series championship team. “Getting that taste of the booth last year with Eck as he was winding down his career, being able to pick his brain and work with OB and talk with Youk about his experiences, I don’t know, it felt right. It felt good.
“I thought I’d be nervous. I wasn’t nervous. I actually thought the booth flowed a little bit easier for me than pre and post because nothing is premeditated. It’s watching the game and reacting. It’s how I watch the game on the couch.”
He laughs. “It drives Jenny up a tree,” said Middlebrooks, who is married to former NESN Red Sox reporter Jenny Dell. “She’s like, ‘I don’t care why this guy is taking a lead in the baseline with one out. Go do this for a job.’
“I’m glad they gave me the opportunity. I feel really lucky just based off of the people who have had this job in the past.”