Free Will Middlebrooks? Not Yet, but Maybe Soon
The 2012 season has not been kind to Kevin Youkilis thus far. The gritty Boston Red Soxthird baseman has had to deal with a media frenzy created by some careless remarks from Bobby Valentine concerning his emotional involvement in the game and he is currently hitting just .200/.268/.300. His mobility at third base has been issue for the Sox infield defense and his health seems questionable once again as a groin injury has nagged him since the year began. Worst of all, he now has Will Middlebrooks breathing down his neck.
The Red Sox top prospect is coming of an excellent 2011 season where he tore three minor league levels. He spent most of his time in AA, hitting .302/.345/.520 with 18 home runs. He is currently dominating AAA hitting .371/.413/.757, with 8 home runs in just 75 plate appearances. He was already an excellent fielding third baseman with great baseball instincts and could certainly improve the Red Sox fielding at third. Between Youk’s struggles and Middlebrooks incredible offensive production, it seems fair to ask, “is now the time to bring up Will Middlebrooks?”
Tempting as it may be for frustrated Red Sox fans, the answer is no. Or rather- not yet.
There are two factors at work here. First, the Red Sox are going to be a better team if Kevin Youkilis can be something close to the hitter he has been thus far in his career. Middlebrooks is a very promising player, but very few players ever reach the level of production Youkilis regularly contributed in his prime. From 2007-2011 he was the 12th best hitter in baseball by wRC+ (139), just ahead of Mark Teixeira and David Ortiz. He was the 17th best player overall by fWAR, averaging 4.7 WAR per year. Even last season, in a down year, Youk was still 26% better than average at the plate and worth 3.7 fWAR. His defense is now a liability but he can easily overcome that with his combination of patience, contact and power at the plate.
While there are relevant signs suggesting that Youk’s current struggles could be an early sign of decline, it is far too soon to give up on a player with his track record. The Red Sox need Youkilis to get the vast majority of plate appearances from the third base position for at least three to four more weeks. In that time if his peripherals continue to display eroding skills, Boston can then consider the making Middlebrooks the full time third baseman. It is far more likely that Youkilis rebounds enough to keep his hold on the position into June.
That would benefit the Red Sox and Middlebrooks. WMB has a ton of potential, but his pitch recognition and plate approach is still developing. Unlike the uber-patient Youkilis, Middlebrooks is very aggressive at the plate. He may be able crush AAA mistake pitches at this point, but major league pitchers will make fewer mistakes and work out of the zone to make him swing and miss. Strikeouts can be an issue for Middlebrooks and while he has the plate coverage and contact ability to succeed without great control over the zone, he still needs development at the plate. If he does continue to light up AAA pitchers through May and June he could force the Red Sox hand, but he needs to show that kind of ability and that kind of want to prove he can handle taking his lumps in the major leagues.
There is also the issue of Kevin Youkilis’ trade value. If the team were to replace Youkilis in the next week or two, his value on trade market would plummet to an all time low. If Middlebrooks is destined to replace Youkilis this season, the Red Sox could use leverage Youkilis’ remaining value to bolster their flailing bullpen or even upgrade the starting rotation. Youkilis would be far better off at first base at this point and a team like the Nationals, Brewers, or the Dodgers could certainly bolster their playoff hopes with the grinding righty on the roster. If Youk doesn’t play, he can’t help the team on the field or in trade.
Right now Middlebrooks gives Boston some needed insurance should Youkilis get hurt or fail to rebound entirely. By the end of the season, he could even be the team’s everyday third baseman. Despite the agonizing state of the team right now and the poor start from Kevin Youkilis, patience is still needed.