FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Will Middlebrooks was humbled in 2013.
Now, he's as confident as ever and eager to prove he can earn the starting job at third base for the Boston Red Sox. But the job isn't his. Not yet.
Middlebrooks, who busted onto the scene during his rookie season in 2012 and put up some impressive power numbers with 15 home runs and 54 RBIs in 75 games, dealt with the normal ebbs and flows of a young big league career last season.
He spent almost two months at Triple-A Pawtucket after getting sent down in late June, when he was batting just .192 with a .619 OPS over 53 big league games. He returned to Boston in August, and experienced more success, raising his season totals to a .227 batting average, .696 OPS, 17 homers and 49 RBIs in 94 games.
But he saw his role change during the Sox's postseason run toward a World Series title when manager John Farrell decided to start rookie Xander Bogaerts, a shortstop by trade, at third base for Game 5 of the American League Championship Series against the Detroit Tigers. Bogaerts remained in the lineup and started at third as the Red Sox won the World Series by beating the St. Louis Cardinals.
When the season was over, Middlebrooks remained in Boston for the offseason and worked out with the team's training staff in preparation for 2014. The 25-year-old third baseman bulked up during the short offseason and arrived at camp ready to go.
"It was fun," he said of the offseason. "I stayed in Boston and I have a goal to get better. I want to solidify myself and make a name for myself. I did everything I could to get my body back to where I needed it to be and then some. I'm just going to try to keep up that program during the year, stay healthy and help us win games."
General manager Ben Cherington and the Red Sox were impressed with Middlebrooks' offseason. They would like to see his progress continue.
"The time he spent in Pawtucket, as tough as that was for him, we saw some changes when he came back and he carried that into the offseason," Cherington said. "He had a good offseason. He's in good shape, he's strong and he's getting his work in now. The talent is going to allow Will to be a really good player and he's just got to go about his work every day, get his work in and that's what he's doing. His career start is not unlike a lot of guys that go on to have really good major league careers. He's certainly not a finished product, and he knows that but the arrow's pointing up, in our estimation."
Middlebrooks, a right-handed hitter, can hit for power to all fields, which is hard to find, according to Cherington.
"He uses the raw power from line to line in any ballpark," Cherington said. "There's just not a lot of guys that can do that. So when you have it, we have a responsibility to do everything we can to nurture it and help him work towards being a more complete player, so we can rely on him. I know he's focused on that and that's what he's working on. He's come into camp with a good look in his eye, on a mission and ready to work. He's not going to be handed anything but Will will go prove he's the guy."
As the left side of the Red Sox infield is currently constituted, Bogaerts will start at shortstop and Middlebrooks will play third. Free-agent shortstop Stephen Drew remains in limbo, and while there is a scenario in which the Red Sox could re-sign him, agent Scott Boras understands the club's parameters. At this point, it's unlikely Drew will return to Boston.
Middlebrooks isn't worrying about any scenario beyond his own.
"Whatever happens, happens," he said. "I still have to come here and do my job. Whether they sign five third basemen, I still have to come in and compete for a job. I'll just put my head down and work hard."
While Middlebrooks was struggling a season ago and trying to hone his skills, then-PawSox manager and former major league All-Star shortstop Gary DiSarcina told him that any player can enjoy success in the big leagues for a few months, but doing it on a consistent basis is what's important.
"You struggle, you learn. When you do well, you learn. I think I fit both of those," Middlebrooks said. "I've seen a little bit of everything in my first two years."
Middlebrooks wasn't fully healthy last season, dealing with lower-back and rib issues that included a stint on the disabled list in late May/early June, but he doesn't want to make any excuses.
"I honestly don't want to talk about last year. No one wants to talk about last year, honestly, especially me," he said. "My goal is to win the World Series and that's the one goal that I have."
When Cherington described Middlebrooks as being on a mission with a certain look in his eye, it's the truth. He appears to be more serious this season than he was a year ago at this time.
"If anyone comes out there and does [crappy] they're not going to have a job," Middlebrooks said. "That's what's beautiful about this sport is you never know what's going to happen, or who's going to do what. You just keep your head down, work hard and good things will happen to you."