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In position for a change

Middlebrooks set to become fixture

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / June 24, 2012
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Every day he makes the imminent decision to deal Kevin Youkilis more credible.

Will Middlebrooks is the present, folks. He’s no longer the future.

Youkilis will soon be dealt to the Indians, White Sox, or Dodgers and Middlebrooks won’t be looking over his shoulder. Not that he has to peek much anyway. He stroked three hits Saturday night, including a double and home run, and knocked in two runs in Boston’s 8-4 win over Atlanta.

“I feel really comfortable seeing it early and seeing it long, just getting good pitches to hit and not missing them,’’ said the rookie third baseman, who has 33 RBIs in his first 40 games, the most since the Angels’ Wally Joyner had 38 through 40 games in 1986.

The Red Sox are as excited to have him as they were when Youkilis came on the scene as a 25-year-old third baseman. Youkilis made his debut May 15, 2004, against the Blue Jays in a 4-0 win and went 2 for 4 with a home run.

Youkilis, who hit seven homers and knocked in 35 runs with a .367 on-base percentage as a rookie, was nicknamed the “Greek God of Walks’’ by the A’s staff, heralding his on-base prowess.

After spending his rookie season at third base, Youkilis turned himself into a Gold Glove first baseman and All-Star. Youkilis was a good player here for a long time, part of two World Series championship teams.

Endings are never fun. They are usually messy in Boston and this one will be as well.

Eight years after Youkilis broke in, Middlebrooks doesn’t have to be concerned about all that. The organization’s plan for him was to be a September call-up. If he showed some promise, the Red Sox would likely have not picked up the $13 million option on Youkilis’s contract.

But Youkilis broke down and Middlebrooks, who was red hot at Pawtucket, got the call May 2 and stayed that way in the majors. He’s had rough spots - and he was almost sent back to Pawtucket at least twice - but he smoothed those over quickly.

When the Red Sox were trying to improve Youkilis’s trade value and show teams he was healthy, Middlebrooks had to sit on occasion, but that didn’t hurt him and in and of itself was a sign that he was ready to be a big leaguer.

When Middlebrooks got his chance, he gave manager Bobby Valentine every reason to believe he should be out there full time.

As the Sox were getting closer to dealing Youkilis, it was easy to sit the veteran for an assortment of reasons. One, Middlebrooks needed to play every day; two, they wanted to end the Adrian Gonzalez in right field experiment; and three, they did not want Youkilis to get injured before a deal could be completed.

While Youkilis has been able to help the team by shifting between first and third base when Valentine needed to accommodate the best batting order, Youkilis also started to sour, saying he had been left in the dark about his status. That simply wasn’t true.

Both Valentine and general manager Ben Cherington had conversations with Youkilis about his present situation and that a resolution - a trade - was being worked out.

Youkilis is smart enough to know why he wasn’t playing, isn’t he? He knows Middlebrooks has surpassed him. He knows the team is about to deal him. So why the drama?

Middlebrooks has decided not to thrust himself into the debate.

“I don’t care. I really don’t. I’m here to play baseball. I’m not here to be an analyst. I’ll let you do your jobs and I’ll do mine,’’ Middlebrooks said.

It’s never easy to be beaten out by a younger player, but such is baseball. The Red Sox got outstanding seasons out of Youkilis, but now at age 33, they feel his best years are likely behind him and no longer want to make the financial commitment to him.

Youkilis can go somewhere and help a contender and revive his career.

When players leave they usually have a chip on their shoulder, and Youkilis may flourish with a change of scenery. The one thing you can always say about Youkilis: He plays the game hard and he played it right.

Hopefully, Middlebrooks has learned from Youkilis, whose intensity was sometimes his worst enemy, but it beats taking the game for granted.

Saturday night, all the reasons for the change were on display.

Middlebrooks had three hits and hit his ninth homer, which leads American League rookies. He’s hit more than heralded rookies Bryce Harper or Mike Trout. He’s making people think that perhaps the Sox have the second coming of Evan Longoria.

During spring training, Middlebrooks was the first of the rookies to go down to the minor league camp. There was much greater anticipation for slick-fielding shortstop Jose Iglesias and catcher Ryan Lavarnway.

Middlebrooks has given fans hope that the next generation of Red Sox players will be fun to watch. Ryan Kalish is trying to make that mark as well. Iglesias and Lavarnway could get their chance before the season is over.

The late Haywood Sullivan always thought player development meant that you should be able to replace every position on the field from within your farm system every five years. Well, at third base, the Red Sox have been able to replace one home-grown player with another.

That’s pretty ideal.

That should be a great source of pride.

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

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