One of the top breakout performers in the Red Sox minor league system this year has been Salem third baseman Will Middlebrooks, who has skyrocketed up the SoxProspects.com rankings from No. 26 at the start of the season to No. 10 today. As of June 13, Middlebrooks was hitting .292/.366/.440 with 18 doubles and 4 home runs for the Salem Sox.
There is little doubt that Middlebrooks has had the tools to be a major league third baseman. He carries his 6-foot-4, 200-pound frame with ample athleticism and fluidity. His defensive skills at third have drawn comparisons to Scott Rolen. All of his offensive tools also have above-average potential, including his hitting skills, his power, and his speed.
In 2010, the 21-year-old may just be making the leap from a raw, toolsy project to a player that’s in the discussion as a potential big-league regular in the not-too-distant future. However, like many high-ceiling prospects drafted out of high school, Middlebrooks’ early career path has been an uneven one.
Back in June 2007, the Red Sox were without a first-round draft pick, having forfeited the 20th overall pick for signing Type-A free agent Julio Lugo. But that doesn’t mean the team didn’t scoop up any first-round talent that year. Boston selected Middlebrooks, then a highly regarded shortstop/right-handed pitcher out of Liberty-Eylau High School in Texas after he slipped to the fifth round due to signability concerns.
Having been committed to Texas A&M for both baseball and football, Middlebrooks signed with the Sox at the 2007 deadline for late first-round money. The team converted him to a third baseman the next spring, and he made his professional debut with Lowell in June 2008. He struggled adjusting to pro pitching early on, hitting only .228 in June and July, appearing tense at the plate and pressing just to get the ball in play. However, he relaxed later in the season and managed to hit .300 for the Spinners in August and September, showing subtle improvement with his pitch recognition.
Middlebrooks came into 2009 spring training in phenomenal shape, prompting Red Sox farm director Mike Hazen to comment that he had been the most impressive player in the whole system early in camp. But Middlebrooks tore his hamstring in early March, causing him to miss all of spring training and delaying his full-season minor-league debut until late April, when he was assigned to play with Low-A Greenville.
After returning from the injury, he got off to a slow start for a second straight season, hitting just .178 through June 1. But after making additional adjustments he again came on late, ultimately putting up a .265/.349/.404 line for the 2009 season. However, the major concern was still the third baseman’s pitch recognition, especially considering that he struck out 123 times in 374 at-bats -- a whopping 33 percent strikeout rate. He also struggled with a tendency to over-pull the ball when he got behind in counts.
Middlebrooks again came into camp in great shape this spring and earned a promotion to High-A Salem. Unlike the two previous seasons, the 21-year-old pounded the ball out of the gate, hitting .373/.432/.582 for the month of April. "This is the first year that I’ve been both comfortable and consistent with my approach and plan at the plate," said Middlebrooks, "that has translated into grinding out at-bats and more solid contact."
He has continued to put up impressive numbers through the first half of the minor-league season, particularly cutting down on the strikeouts. "I owe that to my approach -- being able to recognize the off-speed pitch early in the count has been huge," he said. "Instead of rolling over that slider or change-up down and away first pitch, I’ve been able to get myself in hitters’ counts where I’ve seen more fastballs."
He’s also not trying to swing for the fences every at-bat, adapting well to the offensive approach preached by Boston’s minor league instructors. "I’m not worried about my power numbers being down. Right now I’m in the development part of my career, and my focus is really just to try to be consistent at the dish."
Middlebrooks is also learning to deal with the ups and downs of professional baseball -- something he never had to learn as an amateur after hitting .555 during his senior year of high school. Following a 7-for-45 run from May 26 to June 6, the 21-year-old seemed to take the slump in stride, noting, "I’m not worried about that – that’s baseball for you. Its a humbling game. As soon as you are seeing a beach ball coming out of the pitcher’s hand, the next day it’s a golf ball. You will always have ups and downs, and I think that the objective is to limit how low the lows are and to be as consistent as possible. Statistically you can be in a slump -- you can go 0-for-4 every day and be one of the best hitters in the game. There is so much that is out of your control and that’s what I’m learning -- control what you can, but after the ball leaves the bat, there’s not much you can do."
Obviously accepting Boston’s hitting philosophies, Middlebrooks should continue to adapt well going forward. He’ll just need to continue working on keeping a consistent approach at the plate by not trying to over-pull the ball and by recognizing the manner in which advanced pitchers are going to come at him. In maintaining a consistent offensive approach, he should be able to cut down on the strikeouts even more and work deeper into counts. At that point, he really has the ability to drive balls to all fields with authority. Once that approach becomes more refined, look for Middlebrooks to take advantage of his exceptional bat speed, at which time his power should be the next tool to show.
As for now, the third baseman is likely to spend most, if not all, of the 2010 campaign in High-A Salem, and will be participating in the California-Carolina Leagues All-Star Game on June 22. While a late-season promotion to Double-A Portland is not out of the question, he will almost certainly begin the 2011 season with the Sea Dogs, and if he continues his upward trends on offense he could be in the discussion for a big-league roster spot in 2012.
Mike Andrews is designer and developer of SoxProspects.com and a special contributor to ESPNBoston.com.