Middlebrooks intent on max impact

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- This was a bold statement from a young player who is viewed mostly through the prism of his potential as a hitter, a right-handed slugger capable of hitting 25 to 30 home runs a season.

"I want to win a Gold Glove," Red Sox third baseman Will Middlebrooks said Friday. "I want to help us win any way that I can."

The left side of the Red Sox infield is in transition. Gifted shortstop Jose Iglesias was traded away. Veteran Stephen Drew turned down a $14.1 million qualifying offer to return and remains in free-agent limbo. Top prospect Xander Bogaerts has been deemed the heir apparent at short. Middlebrooks, who struggled through injuries, a prolonged slump and a demotion last season, has been given the chance to reclaim his stake on third base.

Middlebrooks worked all winter with team strength and conditioning consultant Mike Boyle and came to camp stronger than he has ever been. He also believes he has added quickness, which he hopes will translate into making him a better base-runner and defender.

Drew gave the Sox a level of consistency at short that Bogaerts, a rookie, will be hard-pressed to duplicate, though the tradeoff in what Bogaerts is expected to bring offensively is one the Sox are happy to take. Bogaerts, only 21, has been a shortstop throughout his brief professional career (379 games), and until he proves otherwise, the Sox believe his future is at that position.

A strong two-way performance by Middlebrooks, 25, can put an end to any talk of shifting Bogaerts to third -- a scenario that might take on further momentum when slick-fielding shortstop Deven Marrero, a better defender than Bogaerts, is big league-ready (a 2015 ETA is realistic).

Up to this point, Middlebrooks' glove has engendered little conversation among talent evaluators, who regard him as an adequate to average defender. The defensive metrics have been even less kind to Middlebrooks. For example, Manny Machado of the Orioles grades out as having saved his team 35 runs at third base. Middlebrooks was judged to have cost his team eight runs.

Middlebrooks, however, is intent on altering how he is perceived in a town well acquainted with elite third-base defense; it was only four seasons ago that Adrian Beltre, a four-time Gold Glover with exceptional range, reflexes, hands and arm, manned the position for the Red Sox.

Part of that process, Middlebrooks said, will involve him and Bogaerts becoming more familiar with each other.

"Just working with each other and learning each other's strengths and weaknesses and where to play with each other," Middlebrooks said. "Like if he moves, I need to move with him.

"We have to learn how to play certain guys. We haven't played a full season together in the big leagues. You've got to learn hitters and you've got to learn our pitching staff, and that's what we're working on right now -- communicating and talking. That's what Pedey [Dustin Pedroia] really stresses, that we communicate on every pitch."

Wednesday in Jupiter, Fla., both Middlebrooks and Bogaerts had bad games defensively against the Cardinals. Middlebrooks said Friday there was a reason for it.

"Against St. Louis, we were having trouble seeing the ball off the bat," he said. "Both Bogie and I were having trouble seeing the ball. The glare, I don't know, I couldn't figure it out. Tried sunglasses, tried without.

"There was one ball I thought it was hit to short. I turned, and it was right at my feet. You're going to have days like that, sun days like that. You just have to grind through them the best you can and hope you knock the ball down."

On Thursday, Middlebrooks and Bogaerts were both back in Fort Myers as infield coach Brian Butterfield conducted an in-depth session reviewing the team's defensive shifts and terminology.

"A lot of talking, working on alignments and terminology," Middlebrooks said. "A big game in the middle of the season, Brian says, 'Do this, give me this,' you don't have time to ask. You have to know. We try to get that base down, that terminology down. Most of us have it. There are a couple of newcomers, like [Jonathan] Herrera, but most of it is the same stuff, so it's a refresher just going over it."

The physical skills Middlebrooks brings to playing the position will ultimately determine in great part whether he can become the defender he aspires to be. Machado, Beltre, Evan Longoria of the Rays, all have skill sets difficult to match.

But Middlebrooks believes it is more than just range, reflexes, hands and arm.

"It starts not on the field, it starts in here," he said. "With Butter and my teammates talking about everything, understanding the game, understanding hitters, understanding our pitchers. Just experience. There is no replacement for that, going out there, playing and struggling and going through the tough times.

"That's the biggest thing right now: understanding myself, learning the game more and more."