Who's On Third?
THE KID IS READY; THE SPOT SHOULD BE HIS
With nine strikeouts and just two hits in his past 16 at-bats, young Will Middlebrooks has posed a compelling challenge to my debating skills. But I will shoulder what just days ago was a considerably lighter burden and present a case for keeping Middlebrooks in the big leagues as a contributing member of the Red Sox, rather than dispatching him back to the minors.
The crux of the argument for Middlebrooks is that a player, not an organization, dictates when he is ready for promotion. And while we admittedly are dealing with a small sample size, Middlebrooks, in six brief weeks (the first four spent with Triple-A Pawtucket) demonstrated a skill set shared by only the most precocious of prospects. Nine home runs, including five three-run jobs, in his first month in Pawtucket. Five home runs and four doubles in his first 42 at-bats in the big leagues, while demonstrating not a whit's worth of evidence that he was the least bit intimidated by his exalted surroundings.
It is no small matter that Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine was so sufficiently impressed by the rookie that he entrusted him with the No. 5 spot in the batting order, behind Adrian Gonzalez and David Ortiz. Pitch around the big boys and Valentine had confidence that Middlebrooks would make the opposition pay.
The Red Sox usually don't saddle great responsibility on players as young (23) as Middlebrooks. Since 1990, only two players 23 or younger have played regularly for the Sox: Nomar Garciaparra and Dustin Pedroia. Could Middlebrooks be the third? Don't dismiss the idea just because of the recent downturn in his fortunes. One of the most admirable of Middlebrooks' qualities has been his ability, when confronted with adversity, to make the adjustments required to thrive again.
There is an unavoidable spitting-in-the-wind component to lobbying for Middlebrooks' continued employment in Boston: An All-Star, Kevin Youkilis, is about ready to reclaim third base, where Middlebrooks has filled in so capably while Youkilis was hurt. Even if the Red Sox are so inclined, they cannot open a spot for Middlebrooks without relocating Youkilis, a task that requires prospective suitors to be satisfied that the oft-injured veteran can remain in one piece. Youkilis can do so only by playing.
So, in the end, Middlebrooks's career path may be forced to take a temporary detour. But the confluence of factors -- Youkilis being at the end of his contract, a ready-made market for what could still be a productive bat and a kid banging on the door -- makes any return to Pawtucket temporary at best.
GIVE THE VETERAN HIS JOB BACK
Red Sox rookie third baseman Will Middlebrooks is no doubt a true talent who has injected a youthful spark into the big league club when it needed it the most.
There's no denying his ability and his potential to someday soon be an everyday player for the Red Sox. However, let's not put the kid in the Hall of Fame just yet.
When veteran third baseman Kevin Youkilis (back strain) is soon activated from the disabled list, you can safely bet that he will be in the starting lineup -- and he should be.
When Youk returns to the lineup -- which could come as soon as this weekend -- the right move would be to send Middlebrooks to Pawtucket, where he can continue to hone his skills. He is, as my colleague points out, just 2 for his past 16 as major league teams start to get a more complete scouting report on him. In other words, he's not yet a finished product.
Yes, Youk has been bruised and banged up the past few seasons, but that's because of the way he plays the game. He's still productive, and his veteran presence is needed for a team that is starting to turn things around. Youkilis himself concluded that Middlebrooks is the future third baseman and deserves to be.
That said, the 33-year-old Youkilis is not done, not by any stretch. From May through August last season, he hit .278 with 12 homers, 63 RBIs and an .856 OPS in 85 games before injuries derailed him. Middlebrooks, by the way, has an OPS of .847 so far this season.
Youk's contract is up at the end of this season. He has an option for 2013, but at this point it would seem unlikely the team exercises it. It seems more likely the team would try to trade Youk at some point this season -- all the more reason to give him his third base job back as an audition of sorts for interested parties. You know there's bound to be a team or two desperate for a third baseman at the trade deadline.
If by July Youkilis has not turned things around from a slow start (he was hitting .219 when he went on the DL), well, then there's a decision to make. But for now, the right move for the Red Sox is to give the veteran his job back, as hard as it is to see a talent like Middlebrooks sent back to the minors.