Will Middlebrooks learned while hurt

BOSTON -- The type of person he is, David Ortiz probably would have made good on his offer to Will Middlebrooks anyway. But now that Ortiz has signed a two-year, $26 million contract extension to remain with the Red Sox, it's a lock that Middlebrooks will give Ortiz's cellphone number a workout.

"It's unfortunate that David was hurt," Middlebrooks said, "but I was able to sit next to him and discuss things with him, discuss hitting. He's very open. He wants to do nothing but help young players.

"He always said if you've got any questions, call me. Any questions in the offseason -- non-baseball-related, baseball-related -- call me. It's awesome. That's why he's loved like he is, he's an open book to everyone. He's been a huge help to me."

Like Ortiz, Middlebrooks ended the season on the disabled list, missing the last seven weeks with a fractured right wrist after being struck by a 95 m.p.h. fastball from Cleveland reliever Esmil Rogers.

The injury brought an abrupt halt to what had been an auspicious big-league debut. Middlebrooks took over full time at third base after Kevin Youkilis was traded to the Chicago White Sox and made an immediate impact, batting .288 with 15 home runs and 54 RBIs in just 286 plate appearances. He had an .835 OPS, and 10 of his home runs came with men on base, including three three-run homers and a grand slam.

But even though the injury kept him off the field, Middlebrooks said that his time hardly went to waste.

"I've learned a lot and I haven't touched a bat," he said before the Red Sox broke up at season's end.

"I was just able to sit back and watch every game," he said. "It's hard when you're playing -- you really just watch the pitch, that's it. But this gave me a chance to watch.

"J.J. Hardy (the Orioles' shortstop) is one of the best defenders around, and I spent an entire game just watching him, watching him playing defense. He's going to make every routine play, he makes everything simple, there's nothing flashy about him. But I watched his mannerisms, what he does.

"Not that I'm going to copy him, but he's really good for a reason, and so I wanted to see how he went about his business. There were numerous guys I did that with, sit back and pick people apart."

Middlebrooks turned 24 in August and has played in just 75 major-league games, but the Texas native has the awareness and self-assurance of someone whose grasp of the game transcends his experience.

"Being hurt, believe it or not, helped me mature as baseball player," he said. "It's easy to just run around, mess around and play around in the dugout, thinking 'I'm in the big leagues, and I don't have to do anything,"' he said. "But I wanted to come to the field with a purpose. I watched video, I talked to guys. I felt like as the year was going on week by week, I was getting better, getting better, getting better, and I didn't want that to flatten out.

"There were plenty of things I could do to get better without playing."

Middlebrooks' wrist had healed enough that he was able to take a few swings at the end of the season. It was awkward, he said, and the wrist was still a little sore, but it was a start.

Normally in the offseason, he said, he starts hitting in January. This winter, he plans to begin a month earlier.

"I want to make sure to get that awkward stage out of the way," he said. "A lot of guys who have had wrist or hand injuries say it doesn't feel right for a couple of weeks. I'm going to knock that out before I get in my normal routine."

Before that, he will resume workouts at an Athletes Performance Institute facility in Frisco, Texas, where he might also do a little lobbying on Boston's behalf. A workout partner is Torii Hunter, who became a free agent when the Angels did not exercise his option.

Hunter, who played with Ortiz in Minnesota and John Lackey in Anaheim, is 37, but coming off a year in which he batted .313 with an .817 OPS. He may have been the Angels' best player the last month of the season, when he drove in 27 runs in 29 games while batting .345 in a failed attempt to carry the club into the playoffs.

With the Sox in the market for outfielders, Hunter could provide a short-term option.

"He's an unbelievable athlete," Middlebrooks said. "I work out with him and (pitcher) LaTroy Hawkins, who lives just down the street from Torii. They're two of the best guys I've ever met, good people in general.

"He's not going to be the best player on your team, but he's going to be a solid player, he's going to be a good teammate, he's going to be a good clubhouse guy and he's going to be a good leader. He's always going to do the right thing."

Middlebrooks kept his head in the midst of a 93-loss season in which all manner of judgments were made about Red Sox players and their character, most of them negative. He insisted that regardless of the other issues that may have been swirling around the club, the players maintained a united front.

"It's easy in a big-league clubhouse for everyone to be individuals," he said. "Everyone's different, everyone has had their different path to get here. It's as simple as that, and when you have really good teams, everyone gets along, everyone has fun.

"Really, it's easy for people to blame losing on a bad clubhouse, but we never a bad clubhouse. Never. We had a lot of injuries to a lot of starters, and it's hard to be consistent, hard to get in a groove, with different people in the lineup every day.

"But we never had a bad clubhouse. We had awesome guys. There were not a pair of people here that didn't get along. When you're around people every day, they're going to [tick] you off, but I have yet to see it."

There will be changes, of course, next season. New teammates, a new mix. Middlebrooks will be coming to camp not as a question mark, but as an important piece of the future. And he'll still be able to lean on Big Papi.