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SoxProspects: Hot-corner hotshots

Third base is another position with some promise in the Red Sox system, as three of the top 20 prospects in the system play the position. While Kevin Youkilis is signed through this season with a team option for 2013, the position is not totally blocked, as Youkilis is a candidate to possibly see more time at DH as he gets into his mid-30s and beyond.

Here’s a look at the top third-base prospects in the Red Sox system as the 2012 season gets underway.

Will Middlebrooks (Age: 23)

How Acquired: Drafted in the 5th round in 2007 ($925,000 signing bonus)

2011 Stats: .285 AVG/.328 OBP/.506 SLG with 23 home runs for Triple-A Pawtucket, Double-A Portland, and short-season Lowell (rehab assignment)

2012 Status: Added to 40-man roster on Nov. 18, 2011, optioned to Pawtucket on March 16. Three options remaining.

Scouting Report: Middlebrooks is a solid all-around athlete with an ideal frame for a third baseman. He has plus bat speed with a nice upward plane through the zone and the ability to drive the ball when he squares it up. He projects to be an above-average major league power hitter. He is still overly aggressive and will need to spend the first half of the 2012 season continuing to work on his pitch recognition, an area where he’s already made impressive strides. Despite that improvement, he doesn’t project to be a great contact hitter and will likely continue to strike out a lot during the early phases of his career. He also needs to work on not trying to over-pull the ball when he gets into slumps. In the field, Middlebrooks has a great arm, fluid footwork, decent range, and gets nice reactions on balls. Overall, he projects as an above-average to plus defender at the hot corner. He’s known as a very hard worker and a well-liked teammate.

Projection: Starting third baseman for Boston

Ceiling: All-Star third baseman

Floor: Solid bench player with some boom/bust power

Garin Cecchini (20)

How Acquired: Drafted in the 4th round in 2010 ($1,310,000 signing bonus)

2011 Stats: .298/.398/.500 with 3 home runs for Lowell

2012 Status: Minor league camp. Likely to begin season with Low-A Greenville.

Scouting Report: Cecchini has a tall and athletic frame and a high baseball IQ. He’s a quick learner with solid all-around tools. Offensively, he has a sweet left-handed swing with excellent bat speed and an ability to drive the ball with authority. He has an advanced approach for an A-Ball player, with slightly above-average power potential and average speed. He’ll need to improve his approach against breaking balls in 2012. On defense, Cecchini has the tools to become a major league third baseman, but is still learning the position after playing shortstop and second base in high school. He needs to refine his footwork and improve his reactions, both of which should improve with time. He also needs to stay healthy to get a full season of professional development in 2012 after missing large portions of the 2010 and 2011 seasons with injuries. With the right development path, Cecchini has one of the highest ceilings in the organization. He’s just three to four years away from the majors, and a lot can happen in that time.

Projection: Second-division starter during peak years

Ceiling: All-Star third baseman

Floor: Double-A player

Kolbrin Vitek (23)

How Acquired: Drafted in the 1st round in 2010 ($1,359,000 signing bonus)

2011 Stats: .281/.350/.372 with 3 home runs for High-A Salem

2012 Status: Minor league camp. Should spend entire 2012 season with Portland.

Scouting Report: Vitek is a former first-rounder with a thin, athletic build and some room to grow. He has a polished approach with excellent swing mechanics. He currently projects as an above-average contact hitter with below-average to average power. He also has decent speed on the base paths. Vitek’s defense at third base is a big question mark -- he doesn’t look all that natural or comfortable at the hot corner, and his footwork and reactions are subpar. While he has a strong arm, his throwing mechanics to first base don’t look great. Ultimately, he may be best suited for right field over the long haul. This will be a key year for Vitek on the defensive side of his development.

Projection: Versatile fourth outfielder

Ceiling: Impact starter at 3B

Floor: Triple-A player

Heiker Meneses (20)

How Acquired: International free agent, February 2008

2011 Stats: .295/.363/.400 with 3 home runs and 25 stolen bases for Portland, Salem, and Greenville

2012 Status: Minor league camp. Tentatively slated for Salem, but could bounce around.

Scouting Report: Not a heralded signing, Meneses came out of relative obscurity to have a very successful season over three levels in 2011. An athletic Venezuelan infielder with a small frame, he can capably play second base, third base and shortstop with his solid range, fluid feet and decent arm. On offense, he has a compact swing with average bat speed and minimal power. Meneses will need to learn to go the opposite way more, and will need to rely on his plus speed if he’s to continue to succeed at higher levels. If he can do that, he could round out into a valuable utility player.

Projection: Minor league insurance player who may get occasional major league opportunities due to versatility on defense and speed.

Ceiling: Utility player

Floor: Double-A player

David Renfroe (21)

How Acquired: Drafted in the 3rd round in 2009 ($1,134,000 signing bonus)

2011 Stats: .240/.296/.377 with 8 home runs for Greenville

2012 Status: Minor league camp. On the bubble for Salem or Greenville to start the season.

Scouting Report: Renfroe has an impressive frame with a well-filled-out lower body. He hits from an open stance that closes on pitch approach; he probably needs to close down his stance as he progresses. His pitch recognition and selection skills are behind where they should be at this point in his development, and he’s still more of a guess hitter who regularly gets fooled by off-speed stuff. If he’s able to significantly improve on those skills, the tools are there to develop into a major leaguer, as he has solid power potential, average speed and above-average defensive skills at third base.

Projection: Minor leaguer

Ceiling: Reliable bench player, second division starter during peak years

Floor: A-ball player

Others to watch: Nick Moore (2011 30th-round pick); Matt Gedman (son of former Red Sox catcher Rich Gedman); Aneudis Peralta (18-year-old Dominican got $95,000 bonus in 2010); Jon Hee (versatile infielder from Hawaii, should be back with Portland in 2012)