Will Middlebrooks: 5 Sure Signs He Is Ready for MLB

Douglas Sibor@dcsiborContributor IMay 4, 2012

Will Middlebrooks: 5 Sure Signs He Is Ready for MLB

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    Will Middlebrooks, the Red Sox’s most MLB-ready prospect, arrived at Fenway Park Wednesday night ready to make his first big league start and looking to get his career off on the right foot.

    It’s fair to say he succeeded.

    Middlebrooks reached base in three of his four at-bats, stole a base and made several fine defensive plays. All the while he looked every bit the part of an everyday Major Leaguer. Along with David Ortiz, he was the only member of the Sox to record multiple hits in the game.

    Although it’s a very small sample, Middlebrooks looks ready for an everyday role with this Red Sox team. The injury to Kevin Youkilis will give the 23-year-old some time to show what he can do, although he may ultimately have to cede the job back to Youkilis when the veteran’s back sufficiently heals.

    Middlebrooks represents the future at third base for the Red Sox and he should be playing regularly. Here are five indicators that this fine young player is ready to be a Major Leaguer right now.

Previous Minor League Performance

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    Middlebrooks has been on an upward trajectory throughout his minor league career, and in the buildup to 2012, he showed that he was evolving into a strong player. He progressed quickly through the Sox minor league system, advancing at least one level in every one of his professional seasons since being drafted in the fifth round of the 2007 draft.

    He has seen a steady rise each season in his batting average, slugging percentage, OPS and home runs—a clear sign of a hitter who is beginning to master his craft. His defense has remained relatively steady as well, peaking in 2010 with a .945 fielding percentage.

    This consistent improvement is what the Sox (and all MLB teams) look for in their top prospects, and Middlebrooks has demonstrated that he can be a standout player at every level of minor league baseball.

Incredible 2012 Start

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    After all of his previous minor league success, Middlebrooks seemed like he had probably reached his ceiling in terms of minor league stats.

    Not so fast.

    With a torrid start that had one Baseball Tonight analyst calling him the “Mike Schmidt of the International League,” Middlebrooks proved just how great an offensive force he can be.

    In 100 at-bats with Triple-A Pawtucket, the third baseman hit .333 with nine home runs and 27 RBI. His 1.057 OPS is fifth in the IL and his nine home runs are good for a second place tie. He has also played outstanding defense, having made just one error in 46 chances.

    After such a strong start, it’s no wonder that the Sox felt that could no longer keep him down to face the over-matched IL pitchers.

Spring Training Performance

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    Middlebrooks entered spring training as a young player simply trying to make a name for himself among the massive group of well-known veterans in the Red Sox organization. He certainly accomplished that, and more.

    Getting his first taste of MLB-level competition, Middlebrooks responded with a solid performance at the plate. Despite a high strikeout total (eight), he went 6-for-20 with a double and an RBI in the spring and put together several good at bats.

    Though he spent part of the spring in minor league camp, Middlebrooks obviously showed manager Bobby Valentine enough to prove that he was worthy of a shot so early in the season.

Red Sox’ Position in Standings

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    The Red Sox have struggled this season, and now is the perfect time for them to try to inject some life into this moribund group. The infusion of youth that Middlebrooks provides could help spur the Sox to a stronger, more consistent offensive performance.

    And, even if Middlebrooks’ arrival does not spark the team, getting him the experience is important. This season is beginning to look like a lost cause, and if that turns out to be the case, then it will be important for the Sox to give their young players as much experience as they can.

    Middlebrooks will benefit greatly from simply playing every day and beginning to feel the rigors of playing in the big leagues. By doing so, he’ll be that much more prepared to take over at third full time in 2013.

Breakdown of Kevin Youkilis

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    The incumbent third baseman appears to have hit a wall in his career, as injuries have limited Youkilis in recent years both in the field and at the plate. He simply is not the player he used to be, and with an expensive $13 million team option on his contract for next season, this will likely be his final year in a Sox uniform.

    Middlebrooks has shown that he is more than just insurance for Youkilis. He is a young, developing player who needs a bit of seasoning before he can become a full time player; however, the only way he’s going to get that seasoning is if he actually gets to play.

    Given that Youkilis can’t stay healthy and that Middlebrooks needs to play, the decision here seems obvious. The Red Sox will likely explore the trade market for Youkilis, but even if they can’t find a taker, they must look to the future and see that it is Middlebrooks (and not Youkilis) who will be manning the hot corner for the foreseeable future.