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SoxProspects News

December 23, 2014 at 12:00 PM

Will Middlebrooks: Successes and struggles of a former top prospect

It has been an eventful offseason for former Red Sox minor leaguers. The team reunited with former top prospects Hanley Ramirez and Justin Masterson, while longtime ace Jon Lester's huge contract to take over at the front of the Chicago Cubs rotation ended hopes of a similar reunion after his midseason trade to Oakland. While this trio represent examples of major successes in player development, it is also both useful and necessary to take a step back and examine when things do not go as planned. Such is the case with third baseman Will Middlebrooks, dealt to the Padres last week in exchange for catcher (and Andover (Mass.) High School product) Ryan Hanigan.

Middlebrooks, then ranked by this site as the top prospect in the system, took Boston by storm in 2012. Stepping in for an injured Kevin Youkilis, Middlebrooks hit a grand slam in his third major league game, two more home runs in his fourth, and 10 bombs to go with a .558 slugging percentage through his first 46 games over 178 plate appearances. But that early breakthrough turned out to be the height of Middlebrooks's time with the Red Sox. He missed the last two months of the 2012 season with a fractured wrist, and injuries and ineffectiveness at the plate marred his last two seasons.

2007: Boston lands a touted athlete - under the old rules

Middlebrooks caught the Red Sox eye as a two-sport standout at Liberty-Eylau High School in Texas, where he starred on the diamond as both a shortstop and right-handed pitcher as well as on the gridiron, where he could throw a football 70 yards when he was not handing off to future NFL running back LaMichael James. Baseball America rated Middlebrooks 36th among 2007 draft prospects, comparing his athleticism to Cal Ripken, Jr. and Scott Rolen, while also noting his "low-90s fastball and an occasional plus curveball."

Despite that publication's view that Middlebrooks was a "consensus supplemental first-rounder," teams proved reluctant to take a chance on him because of a perceived strong commitment to Texas A&M. Middlebrooks had a full football scholarship awaiting him in College Station—to be the team's punter—that would have also allowed him to play baseball in the spring. The Red Sox pounced on him in the fifth round, taking him with the 174th overall selection. Without a first-round pick that year, the $925,000 bonus that the club paid to Middlebrooks was the largest the Red Sox gave to any of their 2007 draftees.

2008: A slow debut and promising surge
Middlebrooks did not sign until August 15, only two weeks before the end of the minor league season. A bout of shoulder tendinitis kept Middlebrooks off the field until the final week of the Fall Instructional League, but it did not dampen the enthusiasm for him. SoxProspects.com entered 2008 with him ranked tenth in the system. 

At 6-foot-4, 215 pounds, Boston viewed Middlebrooks as a third baseman from the beginning, starting him off at the hot corner in his assignment to Lowell. The initial adjustment to professional ball was difficult—Middlebrooks hit just .216/.248/.275 without a home run in his first 29 games of New York-Penn League action. Perhaps most worrisome were the strikeouts—36 in only 102 at-bats. On July 25, Middlebrooks ripped the first home run of his professional career. While it turned out to be his only round tripper of the 2008 season, it was a sign of a more comfortable power stroke. Middlebrooks had 13 doubles and a triple in his last 107 at-bats, part of a .290/.345/.458 line. Strikeouts, however, remained a concern, with 37 more, giving him 73 in 209 total at-bats in that first professional go-around. One highlight in that stretch was a 12th-inning walk-off single to give the Spinners a victory in the 2008 Futures at Fenway event, a moment he credited with helping to pull him out of his funk earlier in the year.

Middlebrooks capped that second-half streak with a strong showing at Fall Instructs, with Baseball America calling him "the talk of Boston's camp." In his 2009 prospect preview, SoxProspects.com Director of Scouting Chris Mellen was enthusiastic about Middlebrooks's ability to drive the ball, but prophetically noted his "struggles with ... pitch recognition and a tendency to want to over-pull the ball. ... Despite being quick on the ball, Middlebrooks was beat by fastballs as a result of overcompensation for breaking pitches."

2009-2010: Steady improvement while climbing the ladder
With an assignment to Greenville to start 2009, Middlebrooks again suffered through a slow start, as he missed the first two weeks of the season due to a hamstring strain and was hitting just .178/.283/.233 without a home run at the end of May. But once again, Middlebrooks made necessary adjustments, hitting .292/.371/.458 in 76 games over the final three months. He finished with a very respectable .265/.349/.404 slash line, with 25 doubles and seven homers. While strikeouts remained an issue, 123 in 427 plate appearances represented an improvement over his 2008 campaign, and it came with increased power against superior competition.

Previewing Middlebrooks heading into the 2010 season, Mellen instructed that "with another off-season of strength training under his belt, look for Middlebrooks to flash a little more home run power as the doubles start to carry over the wall with more frequency." The in-game power did indeed begin to emerge in an assigment to High A Salem, as Middlebrooks ripped 31 doubles and blasted 12 home runs. He did so while showing improved defense at third base and chipping away at that strikeout rate. In a discussion with SoxProspects.com Editor-in-Chief Mike Andrews over at ESPNBoston, Middlebrooks credited the uptick in power and coinciding drop in strikeouts to an improved, more patient approach that allowed him to get into better hitter's counts. Following a first-hand look, Mellen noted that "Middlebrooks has begun to show strong signs of making steps forward into rounding out the rough edges of his offensive game." With a final line of .276/.331/.439, the 21-year-old climbed back into the SoxProspects.com Top 20, finishing the season at #13. 

2011: Breakout performance at Portland
Much like Lester, whose rise was documented in this space recently, Middlebrooks turned the corner as a prospect during his summer at Hadlock Field. Entering the season with 20 home runs in over 1,000 plate appearances as a professional, he matched that total in only 457 trips. Middlebrooks had an outstanding .302/.345/.520 line in 96 Double-A games, earning himself a late-season promotion to Pawtucket. He went just 9 for 56 in his Triple-A cameo, but ripped another pair of home runs. Mellen commented that "adding more lift and post-contact extension to his swing, the line drives with backspin have not surprisingly begun to carry over the fence more frequently." Scouts took note of Middlebrooks during batting practice sessions, with the ball making a unique sound off of his bat.

Despite the excellent play, Mellen had some misgivings which would foreshadow Middlebrooks's later major league struggles: "Middlebrooks is still a bit over-aggressive with the pitches he chooses to attack. Because he covers the plate well and can barrel up offerings due to his batspeed, it has not hurt him that much during his time in Double-A. However, when he makes the next step up the ranks added polish in this department will be necessary to prevent advanced pitchers from using his aggressive nature to get him out."

Even with those worries, Middlebrooks had easily established himself as the top prospect in system that had been heavily depleted by both injuries (Ryan Kalish, Ryan Westmoreland), and trades (Anthony Rizzo, Casey Kelly). Baseball America rated him number 51 on its top prospect list following 2011. The publication noted that "with his bat speed and strength ... he could hit 25 or more homers a season" and that "he's an asset at third base, where he's extremely agile and has a cannon for his arm," but cautioned that "he needs to manage at-bats better and make sure his load and timing don't get out of sync."

2012: Hot rookie claims third base job
The power continued to blossom for Middlebrooks. Assigned to Pawtucket, he hit .333/.380/.677 in his first 100 plate appearances before getting the call to Boston to sub for an injured Youkilis. Intended to be a temporary placeholder, Middlebrooks turned Youkilis into a Wally Pipp. When Youkilis was activated on May 22, Middlebrooks had a .558 slugging percentage and five home runs in 80 plate appearances, effectively turning the three-time All-Star into a part-timer. A month later, Youkilis would be dealt to the White Sox, freeing up the third base job for the rookie.

Timing not being on the Red Sox side in 2012, Middlebrooks missed 10 games with hamstring tightness only a week after the Youkilis trade. A month later, a wrist injury would sideline him for the remainder of the season. Still, his overall line of .288/.325/.509 with 15 home runs in 75 games was quite impressive, enough for the Red Sox to head into 2013 with him as the starting third baseman on that revamped roster.

2013-2014: Injuries, disappointment, and trade
The struggles of Will Middlebrooks over the last two years have been well documented. He hit .213/.265/.364 in 608 plate appearances over 157 major league games, striking out 168 times while walking only 35. Only two players in all of baseball, both catchers, had a lower on-base percentage in over 600 trips to the plate since the start of 2013. He missed time due to a back strain and a broken index finger. While he continued to show some flashes of power in 2013, homering 17 times, he went deep only twice in 234 plate appearances this past season as he staggered to a .191/.256/.265 slash line.

When the Red Sox came to terms with third baseman Pablo Sandoval on a five-year contract, it became clear that Middlebrooks's attempt to right the ship in 2015 was not likely to happen in Boston. Likely ticketing him for Pawtucket if he stayed with the organization, the Red Sox instead dealt Middlebrooks to the new-look San Diego Padres for Hanigan.

Analysis and comments
Pitch identification had become a clear issue in 2014, and the image of Middlebrooks swinging wildly over change-ups was not an illusion—he swung and missed on over 26 percent of changes thrown to him last season. With two strikes, that number shot up to over 38 percent. This was not a flaw that simply snuck up on Middlebrooks; even when he was playing well as a minor leaguer, his pitch recognition lagged behind other parts of his game.

While it was true that Middlebrooks was the top prospect in the system when his value peaked, he was never considered an elite prospect—he happened to peak at a time when the system was at its weakest point in the last ten years. The write-ups, particularly those by Chris Mellen indicate how much risk there was with Middlebrooks as a developing player. Over the past ten years, Middlebrooks the lowest-ranked player in Baseball America's Top 100 list among those to top its Red Sox list.

2013: Xander Bogaerts (2)
2012: Bogaerts (8)
2011: Middlebrooks (51)
2010: Casey Kelly (31)
2009: Kelly (24)
2008: Lars Anderson (17)
2007: Clay Buchholz (2)
2006: Jacoby Ellsbury (33)
2005: Jonathan Papelbon (37)
2004: Hanley Ramirez (10)

Of course, many players in that mid-tier prospect range do turn into valuable major league players. Dustin Pedroia peaked at number 77 on the Top 100. Justin Masterson topped out at number 64. It was not that Middlebrooks wasn't highly regarded, and it is also not like Middlebrooks cannot turn things around out west. With a trade to the new-look Padres, Middlebrooks is expected to be the opening day third baseman, and will be able to hit lower in the order in the club's retooled lineup as he tries to figure things out.

Beyond the simple rate of attrition of prospects in general, Middlebrooks was always something of a high-risk/high-reward gamble. The minor leagues are littered with tremendous athletes who come into professional baseball with athletic tools that are far ahead of their baseball skills. While it may not feel like it today, Middlebrooks's ability to craft those raw tools into the skill necessary to get just under 900 plate appearances at the major league level is a tribute to his hard work.

As with everything else in player development, perspective is the key. From the top prospect in the system three years ago, 2014 feels like a disappointment—but for the raw two-sport athlete struggling to hit .200 at Lowell only six short years ago, a major league career that has 35 home runs and a World Series ring is pretty impressive, and certainly far from over.

Photo Credits: Will Middlebrooks with Boston (2012), Lowell (2008) and Portland (2011) by Kelly O'Connor