Will Middlebrooks has set the world on firewith his early performance for theBoston Red Sox, and a number of baseball pundits, like CBS’ Jon Heyman, believe he should retain the starting job at third base when Kevin Youkilis returns. Youkilis became eligible to come off the DL yesterday, May 14, but he is still not fully recovered from the back injury that landed him there. When he does return, the team will need to send someone to the minors and there are few players that still have options left and would not be exposed to waivers. There should be no question about who gets sent down, however, because as amazing as Will Middlebrooks has been he still has plenty of development left and that will be best accomplished in AAA.
Will Middlebrooks’ batting line is, quite simply, phenomenal. He is hitting .304/.347/.674 for a wRC+ of 178. He has four home runs in just 49 plate appearances and that has given him a gaudy 13 RBIs. However, he is not going to sustain anywhere near that level of production. Currently, he has a HR/FB ratio of 36.4%, which is 10% higher than any player with enough at bats to qualify for the batting title thus far. If sustained for a full season, it would be the second highest ratio in the past ten years, behind only Ryan Howard’s 2006 season, when he hit 58 home runs. Unless the Red sox really believe that Will Middlebrooks is, at 23 years old, with just 11 games experience, ready to become the greatest home run hitter in baseball today, they should let him improve the rest of his game in Pawtucket.
Beyond his power hitting, Will Middlebrooks bat needs work. He is striking out in 26.5% of his plate appearances in the Majors so far. That is a difficult rate to sustain even for a power hitter, but when your walk rate is just 6.1% it becomes almost impossible. There have been 24 instances of qualified players with strike out rates over 26% since 2001 and not a single one has a walk rate as low as Middlebrooks. Even looking at players with just 250 plate appearances in a season, there are only six instances of players who had strikeout rates over 26% and walk rates under 7% and still managed to be better than average hitters. Four of those instances belong to Wily Mo Pena, who is currently playing in Japan. Middlebrooks is still young and while he will never walk much, he should learn to strike out less and be a productive, though free swinging hitter. Right now, however, his offensive upside is comparably to Wily Mo Pena. Wily.Mo.Pena.
That is just considering Middlebrooks development apart from the fact that Kevin Youkilis is the player replacing him. Following a down year frought with injuries in 2011 and returning from the DL this year, Youkilis is still projected (Zips) to have a .361 wOBA from here on, which should make him at least 20% better than league average at the plate. Middlebrooks is projected to have just a .309 wOBA, below league average. The difference between Youkilis and Middlebrooks would be close to 50 runs over the remainder of the season. Even if you believe Youkilis is one of the worst third basemen in baseball and Middlebrooks is Brooks Robinson at the hot corner that is probably too big a gap for defense to make up.
There is also the issue of Kevin Youkilis’ trade value. If Youkilis can prove that he is still an above average hitter, he could be the Red Sox most valuable trading chip this summer. The Milwaukee Brewers have lost their starting first baseman and could interested in Youkilis. The Los Angeles Dodgers and the New York Mets are both surprisingly in contention more than a month into the season and their first basemen have been struggling terribly thus far. Returning Youkilis to first base is not an option in Boston with Adrian Gonzalez there and David Ortiz at DH, so the Red Sox need to play him regularly at third if they want to create an opportunity to address one of their many flaws via the trade market.
It is hard to see a promising young player like Middlebrooks come up and succeed only to be sent down, but it is the best thing for him and for the Boston Red Sox. His call up has hopefully given him confidence that he can succeed at the highest level and playing everyday at AAA will help him sort out the holes in his game. If he continues to be too good to ignore in Pawtucket, the team has an enviable problem on their hands and they should be able to solve it with a trade that also improves their pitching. Not sending him down would make the roster less flexible, set Middlebrooks up to fail and depress the value of their most tradable player. As appealing as it may seem, it isn’t the right now and the Red Sox know it.