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Middlebrooks has the will, finding way

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / July 11, 2011

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PHOENIX - If catcher is the most difficult position at which to find top-quality prospects, then running a close second is third base.

The prototypical power-hitting types are becoming rare, so if a team has one, or thinks it might be developing one, it should feel pretty fortunate.

Will Middlebrooks is the Red Sox’ hope at third.

Middlebrooks, who is in Double A Portland, was in the spotlight yesterday when he batted sixth for USA in the All-Star Futures Game at Chase Field.

The 6-foot-3-inch, 220-pound righthanded hitter, who is only 22, is starting to make strides because he’s getting stronger and his power is emerging. His defense shows promise, though in the first inning he tried to backhand a hard-hit ball by World second baseman Jose Altuve rather than get in front of it, and it went for a double.

“It was hit hard, but I make that play,’’ Middlebrooks said after the US beat the World team, 6-4, on Austin (Son of Kevin) Romine’s go-ahead single in the eighth. “I should have made that play.’’

Middlebrooks could be pushing Kevin Youkilis eventually.

“I would never say I’m trying to take someone’s job,’’ said Middlebrooks, who singled through the shortstop hole in the second inning. “Youk is a great guy on and off the field. Got to meet with him and talk to him in spring training. He’s a great player who you can really learn so much from by just watching the way he approaches every at-bat.’’

Middlebrooks has that Evan Longoria look about him, though Longoria is a special talent and Middlebrooks won’t have the meteoric rise Longoria did. But he’s developing, and for an organization with a limited number of power hitters, Middlebrooks, along with Ryan Lavarnway, is starting to stick out.

“The power is coming,’’ said Middlebrooks. “I can see that part of it coming around as I get bigger and stronger. When I signed I was 180 pounds and I’m 220 now. Coming up I’ve been more focused on just trying to be a good hitter, but the power they say is the last thing to come, and it’s definitely coming along.’’

Middlebrooks, a native of Texarkana, Texas, is hitting .315 with nine homers and 43 RBIs in 241 at-bats at Portland, and has a healthy .857 OPS. He has 15 doubles, and his OBP has risen to .359.

“I was always a big shortstop at every level I played, so I followed Cal Ripken very closely,’’ he said. “Then I was moved to third because of my size.’’

Middlebrooks, like most young players, has to conquer the offspeed pitch to make that final jump to the big club. Once he does that he’ll be a good major leaguer, according to scouts.

The Sox are trying to get him to become more selective, like Youkilis. While Middlebrooks always will have a healthy number of strikeouts, he’s never going to be Mark Reynolds bad, and the hope is he emerges into a doubles/home runs guy.

“It’s one of those things where you just try to build on everything and learn from the things you experience and make adjustments,’’ Middlebrooks said. “They’re all trying to get you out with the offspeed stuff and you have to learn to lay off some of the stuff they throw off the plate. That’s the tough part for a hitter. I’m trying to get better with that.’’

The Sox would take the reincarnation of Mike Lowell, but many years younger. And Middlebrooks gives them that hope.

The fan focus of yesterday’s game was Bryce Harper, and with reason given the ability of the 18-year-old outfielder, who could be playing in Washington by next year at this time. But less publicized future stars such as Middlebrooks, Diamondbacks first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis, and Padres third baseman James Darnell were being eyed by baseball people.

Mike Trout, the 19-year-old outfielder who played in the Futures Game last season, recently was called to the majors by the Angels. Rays starter Jeremy Hellickson, Orioles lefty Zach Britton, Braves lefty Mike Minor, Dodgers shortstop Dee Gordon, Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas, Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer, and Angels catcher Hank Conger are in the big leagues after participating in last year’s game.

There are no guarantees, but participants in the game often go on to prominent major league careers. About 120 participants are on big league rosters. Josh Beckett, Clay Buchholz, Adrian Gonzalez, and Youkilis are among the Red Sox who have competed.

The Sox’ other participant in yesterday’s game was Portland outfielder Chih-Hsien Chiang, who is 23 and was signed out of Taiwan in 2005. The lefthanded hitter, who is 6-2 and 180 pounds, is having a good season, hitting .323 with 14 homers, 62 RBIs, and a 1.008 OPS.

Chiang may not be far off from being promoted to Triple A. It’s taken him a while to reach Double A, so the Sox want him to taste success before exposing him to the next level. But Chiang, who is also very good defensively, also could be a player of significance in Boston.

Is Middlebrooks far behind?

“A lot of guys in [in the Futures Game] get to the big leagues,’’ said Middlebrooks. It’s up to us to make sure we do what we need to do to improve to make that happen.’’

Middlebrooks recently got over triceps inflammation, but he said it was nothing serious.

What is serious is Middlebrooks’s desire to get to Boston.

“I’m just trying to produce wherever I go,’’ Middlebrooks said. “Every level throws you a different challenge, and in Double A the pitchers are better and they have more ways of getting you out. I’m sure the higher you go the better they get. So you have to make your adjustments and prove you can play at that level.’’

So far, so good.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.

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