Waiting for Will Middlebrooks

One year ago this month, a 23-year-old Will Middlebrooks got the call to the major leagues when incumbent Red Sox first baseman Kevin Youkilis landed on the disabled list. The kid went on to slug six home runs in May, batting .316 with a .922 OPS along the way, and might have as well written on the proverbial wall himself that Youkilis’ time in Boston was nearing its end.

Yet, since Youkilis was traded to the Chicago White Sox last June 24, Middlebrooks has hit only .213 over parts of two seasons, last year ending prematurely with a wrist injury. This season, gaping holes have emerged in Middlebrooks approach at the plate. The free-swinger’s discipline wasn’t exactly a mystery, but in his second season, teams have used it to their overwhelming advantage, pitching Middlebrooks away, away, away, with the likelihood that the batter is going to give into temptation at some point (Twins starter Kevin Correia, interestingly enough went mostly inside on Middlebrooks Thursday night, resulting in a second-inning double). His .608 OPS is lowest on the team, and only Chicago’s Jeff Keppinger has a lower number (.397!) among American League third basemen.

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Middlebrooks’ struggles have followed him into the field as well. Over the weekend in Texas, the third baseman had a pair of miscues, and added another Thursday during a 5-3 loss to the Twins, Boston’s sixth loss in its last seven games. And because the surprising Sox have come back to Earth – Friday is the first day the Sox have had to share first place with New York and Baltimore since the beginning of April – the dings in the armor have shown some needed polish. Or Bullfrog. Whatever suits you.

Chief among the issues from an offensive standpoint is what the Red Sox should expect out of Middlebrooks going forward. Among the many questions Boston had entering the 2013 season, its third baseman appeared on very few radars as a topic of discussion despite having played only 75 games at the big league level. Middlebrooks burst onto the scene in 2012, and is now taking his big boy lumps, which could simply mean an adjustment at the major league level, or a sign that there’s still seasoning in the works for the 24-year-old.

Middlebrooks is indeed a favorite among the media and fans, and that includes himself. There’s a playful cockiness about Middlebrooks that goes over well when he’s backing it up at the plate, but makes you pause when the talk comes with no receipt. He tends to remind of Dustin Pedroia without the chip on his shoulder, a confidence bred from lauding rather than doubt.

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Since slugging three home runs in Toronto on April 7, Middlebrooks is batting only .154, with frustration mounting and whispers sure to follow about a solution. If Middlebrooks can’t work through this slump, does the possibility of sending him to Pawtucket exist, not as punishment, but as hope that his regains the proper level of professional confidence he needs in the majors? And are the Red Sox ready to hope the magic of Pedro Ciraco can tend bar in the meantime?

There really is no easy solution except to wait and hope that Middlebrooks busts back into the kind of player the Red Sox assumed they were getting heading into the season. But for all the early success the kid had upon his arrival, there certainly were a lot of assumptions about his game that just simply aren’t living up to the hype these days.

“I’m not going to change my routine,” Middlebrooks said recently. “I’m not going to change my approach. I’m not going to change my bats.

“I’m not overmatched. I’m not getting beat by the pitchers, I’m beating myself. It’s just something I’ve got to get through. It won’t be a problem.”

It is a problem. So far.

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