Among the players on the 40 man roster, Will Middlebrooks is the number one prospect. While a few players in the low minors, like Xander Bogearts and Brandon Jacobs have topped Middlebrooks in a few of the many prospect rankings around the web, Middlebrooks is the most promising prospect with a shot at breaking into the majors this year, just above catcher Ryan Lavarnway. Middlebrooks is already looking like an elite fielding third base man and his bat has good power potential. Should Kevin Youkilis fall to injury, Middlebrooks might get a chance to play everyday at some point this season, though his bat could probably use more time atAAA to develop.
Middlebrooks is an aggressive hitter with a good compact swing. He lacks the pitch recognition and plate discipline skills that he will need to be a top hitter in the major leagues at this point but he has been progressing on that front. Recently in camp this season, Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine gushed about his approach at the plate; “He’ll see a pitcher that he’s seen before and be able to pull down that menu of pitches he throws, understand the speed, the angles, the programs that a pitcher uses to try to get a hitter out, or at least what he experienced in the past” His AAA teammate, Alex Hassan, also praise this progress at the plate this week, noting that he is now looking more for his pitch, instead of jumping on the first offering he sees.
All of this is very important because plate discipline is the major question mark in Middlebrooks game. He has the potential to hit for power and to make reasonable contact, but his tendency to swing too often and early could limit his ceiling as a major league hitter. Last season at across three minor league levels, Middlebrooks hit .285/.328/.506 as a 22 year old. He was dominating in AA, with a .302/.345/.520 line in 397 plate appearances and 18 home runs. Strike outs can be an issue for Middlebrooks, but he has shown consistent improvement in this area as he has progressed through the minors. Middlebrooks will never be the patient hitter that current Sox third baseman Kevin Youkilis is, but he does have the tools to be a plus hitter, combining power with a good deal of contact, much like Rangers third base man and ex-Red Sox player Adrian Beltre.
The Adrian Beltre comp is a tempting one because Middlebrooks has the tools to be an elite defender at third base. He is unlikely to ever reach Beltre’s level, as the Ranger is perhaps the greatest fielder of his generation at the position, but Middlebrooks will be very good. He is extremely athletic and has consistently been praised for his instincts for the game. His arm is well above average, as is his range. His value as a defender guarantees him a good base line of value, making his developing bat all the more intriguing and important. If can develop as hitter he should be similar in some basic ways to Beltre, but not quite as good on either side of the ball. Lacking a productive bat, Middlebrooks has the glove to be a Brandon Inge type player, a plus fielding third base man with pop, overly prone to making outs.
As a young player, with options, Middlebrooks is going to begin the year inAAAand get regular at bats to help him recognize breaking balls better and pick which pitches to attack with greater acumen. Should he manage to make those adjustments it is possible that he will see time on the major league roster this season. However, barring an injury to Kevin Youkilis, the Red Sox will be better off if Middlebrooks gets as much type in the minors as possible this season, breaking into the big league in September when rosters expand if he is ready. His glove makes his a reasonable option in an emergency but the development of his bat is a high priority for the future and that will keep him inPawtucketfor most of 2012.