Will Middlebrooks could soon be manning the hot corner for the Sox once again.
The catch: It could be for the White Sox, not the Red Sox.
That's the latest rumor from Scott Merkin of MLB.com, who reported Wednesday night that Middlebrooks "has been mentioned" in trade discussions between Boston and the South Siders centered around veteran right-hander Jake Peavy.
UPDATE: Thursday, July 25 at 4:40 p.m. ET
Alex Speier of WEEI.com has heard from an industry source that Middlebrooks hasn't been discussed between the Red Sox and White Sox. That might be true, and it might not be true. Either way, the rest of the original article is below.
Color me fascinated, folks.
It's not a surprise that the Red Sox are interested in Peavy, as Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com reported earlier this week that Boston was emerging as a potential fit for him. What's surprising is that Middlebrooks is being mentioned as a possible centerpiece. That the Red Sox are willing to deal at least five full years of his bat for a season-and-a-half of an arm that belongs to an injury-prone pitcher is a bit sudden.
But stupid? Nah. Not for the Red Sox, and certainly not for the White Sox.
For the White Sox, dealing Peavy for Middlebrooks is justifiable. There's certainly no point in the White Sox keeping Peavy, as they're far out of the pennant race and they simply don't know if Peavy will be healthy the next time they're looking to make a trade.
And if they're going to make a trade that fills a need, it might as well be for third base.
White Sox third basemen have been the opposite of productive in 2013. Per FanGraphs, they rank 27th in MLB in OPS and Weighted Runs Created Plus. The organization doesn't have some young stud waiting in the wings, as Jonathan Mayo of MLB.com doesn't have a third baseman listed among Chicago's top 20 prospects.
For the White Sox, Middlebrooks is worth a gamble. He has the power bat that you want at the position and the solid glove to go with it. And lest anyone view Middlebrooks as a fallen star, he's still only 24, and it was just last year that he entered the season as Baseball America's No. 51 overall prospect.
But therein lies the obvious question: Why shouldn't the Red Sox be the team gambling on Middlebrooks' future instead of the White Sox?
I can sum it up this way: This may be the best chance the Red Sox get to bank on Middlebrooks' past, and it's in their interest to do so because their present needs more help than their future.
Middlebrooks performed well enough upon being called up last year that he forced the Red Sox to trade Kevin Youkilis to, naturally, the White Sox. It looked like a no-brainer at the time, as Youk was struggling and Middlebrooks had a .326/.365/.583 line through 41 games.
But here's Middlebrooks' line in 87 major league games since the Youkilis trade: .212/.245/.402. He went from striking out 23.7 percent of the time to striking out 26.9 percent of the time, all while walking in fewer than 5 percent of his plate appearances.
This didn't happen by accident. The league adjusted to Middlebrooks by exploiting a fatal flaw: his tendency to whiff at high fastballs.
Middlebrooks crushed four-seam fastballs in his first 41 games, hitting them at a .389 clip with an .833 slugging percentage, according to Brooks Baseball. But after the Youk trade, he hit four-seamers at just a .158 clip with a .317 slugging percentage. To boot, about 37 percent of his strikeouts came on four-seamers.
I can't repost it here, but Brooks Baseball has a graph that shows where Middlebrooks whiffed on four-seamers over his last 87 major league games. Check it out, and what you'll see is a lot of red up in the strike zone and above the strike zone. That red equals not good.
Now, this much can be said in defense of Middlebrooks: It's better to have a prospect who has to learn how to lay off high hard stuff than it is to have a prospect who can't catch up to hard stuff at any location or, worse, a prospect who can't hit major league off-speed pitches.
But what general manager Ben Cherington and the rest of Boston's brass have to consider is whether this is just who Middlebrooks is. Indeed, he would not be the first hot-shot prospect to come up, have some success and then have his career derailed by teams exploiting an incurable weakness.
The fact that Middlebrooks could potentially be fixed basically means that he still has potential, period. He may not have that for much longer, meaning this could be Boston's only chance to use him in a blockbuster trade.
And while his proneness to injuries is not a small concern, Peavy is a guy who's worth a roll of the dice for the Red Sox.
Ignore Peavy's mediocre 4.19 ERA. His actual pitching habits haven't changed much from his strong 2012 season, as his strikeout and walk rates are both impressive and he's still the same fly-ball-style pitcher. He's given up a few more home runs, but FanGraphs will tell you that Peavy's FIP, xFIP and SIERA all agree that he deserves a lot better than the ERA he has.
There should be no mistaking that the Red Sox could use a starting pitcher of Peavy's caliber. Starting pitching hasn't been the glaring weakness it was in 2011 and 2012, but the Red Sox never know what they're going to get from Jon Lester or Ryan Dempster, and there's no telling when Clay Buchholz will be healthy enough to pitch.
In the meantime, Boston's lead in the AL East is being challenged by the Tampa Bay Rays and their resurgent starting rotation. Also, Middlebrooks is not part of the club's plans.
Middlebrooks is down in Triple-A, where he has a .773 OPS in 29 games. Cherington told Scott Lauber of the Boston Herald that the team doesn't have a time frame for his return, making it clear that the Red Sox aren't in a hurry to call Middlebrooks back up. The writing is on the wall that he'll be summoned when he's ready, making it possible he may not be seen again in the majors this season.
That leaves no question that trading Middlebrooks for Peavy would bolster Boston's chances of winning in the short term much more than, you know, doing nothing. And when you consider what the team is working with down on the farm, there would be no point in lamenting the state of Boston's future if Middlebrooks is jettisoned.
The Red Sox have more prospects than they know what to do with, and their two best just so happen to play on the left side of the infield. One is shortstop Xander Bogaerts, who ESPN's Keith Law (subscription required) has ranked as the No. 3 prospect in baseball. Another is Garin Cecchini, a true third baseman who Law has ranked as the No. 21 prospect.
Bogaerts has the body type and athleticism to fill in at third base, and he could do so very soon. In the long run, he may find himself moving back over to short to make way for Cecchini. Or the Red Sox could stash Bogaerts at third next to Jose Iglesias and his amazing glove and look to use Cecchini as trade bait.
Point being that, as much as he may still have potential, Middlebrooks is hardly indispensable for the Red Sox. In fact, they may be the only team in baseball that can afford to deal away one promising young player for the left side of their infield and still be covered.
For now, this is just a rumor, and there's no indication that anything is imminent. But deals that are sensible for both clubs have a way of getting done, so I'll just say that I like this one's chances.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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