PAWTUCKET, R.I. – Ask Will Middlebrooks what this season has been like for him, and he attempts a small smile. He pauses for a moment before responding.
“Well, tough,” he said. “It’s been two years of this. I’m not one to make excuses but it’s just tough. I feel like I’ve been healthy for about a month and half in the last two years. That’s tough. I’m frustrated. I think anyone would be. I just want to play and play at the level I know I’m capable of.”
Middlebrooks was once one of the Red Sox highly regarded prospects. A fifth-round pick in 2007 out of Liberty-Eylau High in Texarkana, Texas, it was two years ago Tuesday that his play at third base forced the Sox to trade fan favorite and incumbent Kevin Youkilis.
Since then, though, Middlebrooks has been through a series of injuries and has appeared in total of 149 games over parts of three seasons. In his debut year, he hit .288/.325/.509 with 15 home runs, but he was limited to just 75 games when a wrist fracture ended his season on Aug. 10. Last season, a low back strain had him out for 16 games, while his performance limited him to 94 games and cost him his spot in the lineup during the World Series.
This season, he is hitting just .197 with a .629 OPS and has missed a total of 56 games with two stints on the DL for a right calf strain in April, and now a fractured right index finger, which has sidelined him since May 17.
He began a rehab assignment with Triple-A Pawtucket on June 14, but has not played since Sunday as the middle knuckle on his right index finger flared up.
“It’s pretty sore,” he said. “It’s been sore for the last I don’t know how long it’s been, the last four or five weeks.
“Maybe a little [swollen], not a lot. Just kind of hit a wall. It’s definitely getting better. It’s just a slow process. It’s tough because it’s the worst [finger to injure] for throwing. It’s the main one for throwing. Swinging a bat, I feel it but it’s not too bad. Throwing is the toughest part right now for it.”
Middlebrooks was hopeful he could be back in the PawSox lineup Wednesday, serving as the designated hitter, and possibly returning to the field later this week. But, he’ll have to wait and see.
“It’s not a setback,” he said. “It’s just pump the brakes for a second and we’ll get back on a routine.”
Does he feel snakebit?
“I don’t know,” he said. “My biggest focus now is just to get healthy and let’s try this thing again. I try not to get down, try not to be negative about it. And just try to move on. That’s all I can do.
“The past week or two weeks I’ve been down here playing and I’ve felt good. I’m seeing the ball well. I’m having fun. Obviously, it’s in the back of my mind: Be careful, don’t get hurt, don’t set yourself back. But at the same time, I’m having fun. I’m playing baseball again. I’m sick of sitting out for four or five weeks at a time. That gets old.
“Even when I was hurt, or playing through stuff, or whatever, I still had fun playing. It’s baseball, and it’s what I love to do. I think the biggest thing with just being healthy is helping my team win. And I haven’t been able to do that in a while.”
Watching the underperforming World Series champions while sidelined is difficult. But Middlebrooks tries not to compound that by putting more pressure on himself. He just wants to get back as soon as possible, and help any way he can.
Sox manager John Farrell said recently that may be in the outfield, where the major league team’s production has been woeful. Middlebrooks has never played there, not even in Little League. He’s willing to give it a try, though.
“I just want to get healthy and get back and helping whichever way I can, whether that’s in the outfield or whatever they need,” he said. “I’m not going to be an outfielder. I think it’s just something like plug in if they need me. There hasn’t been any talk about it other than the first time when they said, hey, just take some balls out there. I haven’t talked any more about it.”
Adding the outfield to his repertoire could increase his versatility and value – especially as the July 31 trade deadline approaches. He tries not to think about that, though.
“People talk about it but I haven’t read one article this year,” he said. “I think that’s something that’s helped me. Just kind of keep my nose out of things and it kind of keeps my mind from wandering. I haven’t been on twitter, I haven’t been reading articles. Better off that way. I can just focus on what I need to do. And a lot lately it’s just been getting healthy. It’s a broken record but it’s true.”
Last season several teams were interested in Middlebrooks. It’s nice to hear, but for now, it doesn’t really matter.
“I have to feel like my value’s pretty low right now,” he said. “But at the same time I don’t want to go anywhere. I want to play here. Who doesn’t want to play in an organization like Boston? That’s not even on my radar. I don’t want to go anywhere. I want to play here. Just get healthy to where I can play to the best of my ability.”
It’s tough for a player who was previously so highly regarded to admit his value is low.
“Yeah, it sucks, but it is what it is,” he said. “I’ve been hurt. There’s nothing I can do about this. It’s not like it’s because I haven’t taken care of my body or I haven’t done what I can do. It’s just accidents and things that have happened. Up until 2012 I didn’t really deal with a whole lot of injuries in my life.