Whatever happened to Will Middlebrooks? It’s a five-word question with no simple answer. Not for the player and certainly not for the Red Sox.
It was only 27 months ago that the Red Sox traded Kevin Youkilis to the Chicago White Sox to ensure playing time for Middlebrooks, a power-hitting third baseman with quarterback charisma. He was 23 and had moved quickly through the minor leagues after turning down a football scholarship to Texas A&M.
Within a few weeks of his debut in 2012, fans, teammates, and management were united in their desire to see more of Middlebrooks at third base and less of Youkilis.
“Middlebrooks needs to be in the lineup, that’s pretty clear,” general manager Ben Cherington said the day the Youkilis trade was made.
The Red Sox have played 408 games since and Middlebrooks has been in the starting lineup only 180 times because of injuries and underperformance. Now, at 26, he prepares for an offseason of uncertainty. It would be surprising at this point if the Red Sox do not seek a better alternative at third base, at least in the short term.
“It’s business. That’s how the game works,” Middlebrooks said. “Very rarely do you find guys who produce throughout their careers without any interruptions. Even the best players in the game have some tough years.”
But this season has gone beyond that. Middlebrooks is hitting .191 in 63 games with only two home runs and 19 RBIs. He has struck out 70 times in 215 at-bats and has an OPS of just .522.
Of the 319 major leaguers with at least 225 plate appearances this season, only 39-year-old Rays catcher Jose Molina has a lower OPS.
Earlier this month, after seeing his son strike out four times in a game against the Yankees, Tom Middlebrooks flew from his family’s home in Texas to spend a few days in Boston and offer some encouraging words in person.
“We talked about hitting maybe once for 10 minutes. He just wanted to come hang out and see me. I appreciated it,” Middlebrooks said. “You really find out who’s on your side when times get tough.”
David Ortiz, who has become a confidante, also took Middlebrooks aside. They spoke about Middlebrooks again becoming the player who hit .288 with 15 homers and 54 RBI as a rookie. Ortiz reminded Middlebrooks of the lift he gave the team during the final weeks of the pennant race in 2013.
“The guy has unbelievable talent but he needs to get it fixed,” Ortiz said. “This is not some ordinary player.”
The Red Sox have kept Middlebrooks in the lineup since and he is sure to play regularly in the six games remaining this season. Team insiders say there are no plans to trade Middlebrooks out of fear he would then realize his potential. Somewhere lurks an All-Star and the Red Sox want that to happen on their watch.
“What he’s going through is not atypical,” Cherington said. “I’m sure he’s frustrated by it. It would surprise me that if at some point it doesn’t stabilize and he’s not a good major league player with power. But it hasn’t happened yet.”
For all his struggles, this is still a player with 34 home runs and 42 doubles in 830 major league at-bats, despite a fractured right wrist (2012), a lower back strain (2013), a right calf strain (2014), and a broken right index finger (2014).
In the post-steroid era, that kind of power isn’t easily forfeited.
“He demonstrated that power consistently last year,” manager John Farrell said. “Has the league made an adjustment to him? Scouting reports reflect the number of at-bats he has had. You’re looking for the counter adjustment to take place. At times, he has shown that. But we’re still looking for that consistently.”
Said Ortiz: “He broke his wrist and then a finger on his top hand. It’s hard to hit when your top hand is messed up. I think it all goes back to that.”
The Red Sox say Middlebrooks has improved significantly at third base. Cherington, Farrell, and the coaches praise his work ethic and willingness to accept instruction.
“The game is important to him,” Farrell said. “I watch his daily work and how he interacts with his teammates and his attention to detail inside the game. No issue with his focus at all.”
Middlebrooks said he doesn’t want to be an “excuse monster” in the wake of a down season. But he can’t ignore the physical toll.
“It’s been a struggle. I wouldn’t say all of that is because of injuries but some of it has been,” he said. “You’re going to have struggles whether you’re healthy or not. But that doesn’t help your cause.
“Your hands and your wrists and pretty important as a hitter. When you lose bat speed it changes you as a hitter. You can’t have the same approach you did when you were healthy and had it. It’s something I need to have come back and I know I will get it back.”
The swing of emotions has been dizzying. Middlebrooks had one of the best rookie seasons for a Red Sox player in recent history, then lost his job twice in 2013 only to regain it this season before being felled by injury.
“I’ve seen the top; I’ve seen the bottom. There’s not really much else. It’s finding that consistency and not riding that roller coaster,” he said.
“Do I look up at the scoreboard every day and see what I want to see? Not right now. But that’s the route I’m on. I can’t complain about. I just have to get better.”
Built for Boston
Middlebrooks draws attention off the field, too. He started dating Jenny Dell, NESN’s Red Sox reporter, during the 2012 season. The couple went public with their relationship via social media on Dec. 31, 2013, and got engaged in July.
Dell, who politely declined comment for this story, has since left NESN for CBS Sports and NFL coverage.
“It was tough when it first came out because your every move is judged. But we knew that,” Middlebrooks said. “People yell her name at me from the stands, but that’s fine. I’m proud to be with her; she’s an amazing person. If people want to make fun of me for that, I don’t mind being made fun of for being with Jenny.”
Middlebrooks also made the decision, which is unusual for a Red Sox player, to live in Boston during the offseason. In person, fans have been supportive. But he has been subjected to profane comments on Twitter, Instagram, and elsewhere on line.
“I love Boston. That’s why I live there year-round. Our fans care, our fans are passionate, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. They want us to win,” Middlebrooks said. “Can it frustrate you a little? Of course. I have a lot of pride playing for this organization. But it can be hard.
“I get it. I watch football and I’ll say, ‘What is that guy doing?’ But I’m not in the huddle; I don’t know what that guy is going through.”
The Red Sox would like Middlebrooks to play winter ball in the Caribbean to make up for the at-bats lost to injury and, they hope, regain some confidence in his swing before spring training.
Middlebrooks is reluctant, believing his priority should be to get healthy and train. He has already made plans to spend time in Dallas and do more baseball-specific workouts this winter.
“My first priority is I need to be 100 percent healthy,” Middlebrooks said. “But I see their point. We’ll see.”
Cherington was responsible for scouting and player development in 2007 when Middlebrooks was drafted and was one of the team executives who helped convince him to sign. This is not a player he will casually throw into a trade. Middlebrooks has a minor league option remaining and the Red Sox could simply retain him for one last shot at becoming the player they thought they had in 2012.
However it works out, Middlebrooks wants one more chance to get it right.
“They’ve stuck with me through this for the last two years. They know how tough it’s been. They still believe in my ability,” he said. “I’m still here. They would have easily gotten rid of me or stuck me in Triple A all year. That means a lot to me.
“This is where I want to be. I like playing in Boston. I like the pressure to win that comes with playing in Boston. It’s not good enough for me to just have a job in the game. I want to be here and win again.”Peter Abraham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @PeteAbe.