Don’t move Will Middlebrooks to first base

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It’s fair to say Will Middlebrooks‘s status as a future Red Sox cornerstone is considerably less certain now that it was, say, last July, or on reporting day February in Fort Myers, or even this April 7 in Toronto.

The 24-year-old third baseman’s sophomore season mostly has been a chronic struggle, one that now finds him searching for his swing in Pawtucket rather than fulfilling projections as the No. 5 or 6 hitter in the Red Sox lineup. So much for those Next David Wright daydreams.

Given that he hit 15 homers with an .835 OPS in an injury-abbreviated rookie season, he couldn’t be blamed if he thought he’d seen the last of McCoy Stadium, at least until they chose to honor him with a mural a few years down the road.

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Instead, he’s 51 miles down the highway from Fenway, and while by all accounts Middlebrooks has handled the demotion maturely, it can’t be easy to go from future star to current afterthought.

There are some among us who would have no problem inserting him into a swap for Phillies lefthander Cliff Lee. Sure, trading Middlebrooks over the winter might have been unthinkable. But when a player hits .192 with a .228 on-base percentage in 216 plate appearances, the fall from building block to trade chip is not a far one at all.

If there’s such a thing as a pleasant problem, the Red Sox are about to encounter one on the horizon. They have a bounty of talented young players on the left side of the infield, from defensive whiz Jose Iglesias, who has been unfathomably excellent at the plate, to ascending Double A third baseman Garin Cecchini, and of course to the uber-prospect playing immediately to Middlebrooks’s left in Pawtucket:

Xander Bogaerts, fresh off a star turn in the Futures Game, represents the brightest singular hope in years for the Red Sox’ future. He’s four years and a month younger than Middlebrooks, blessed not just with extraordinary talent but a work ethic that suggests he considers it an obligation to fulfill his gifts. He’s a prospect so promising that fans of teams other than the Red Sox look forward to seeing what he’ll become.

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He’s alongside Middlebrooks in the PawSox infield right now. But has he ascended past him in the Red Sox’ immediate plans? Should the Red Sox require infield reinforcements during the second half, it is reasonable to wonder whether Bogaerts gets the first look, even at third base, their version of what Manny Machado was to Baltimore a season ago.

Some Red Sox fans, anticipating Iglesias locking down shortstop for the next half-dozen years or so with Bogaerts growing into a power-hitting third baseman, have suggested the best way to make all of these appealing pieces eventually fit is to move Middlebrooks to first base. It’s an increasingly common refrain in correspondence.

I don’t believe the Red Sox move Middlebrooks to a different team — as alarming as the K/BB rate is, there’s still a lot to like. But I know they shouldn’t move him to a different position. Or at least that position.

Middlebrooks has been inconsistent and at times erratic defensively at third base. But he has the tools to play the position, and — I think this is a fair if slightly hopeful guesstimate at what his average season might look like — a .265 hitter with 25 homers and an .825 OPS is fine there. But at first base? Those are Mike Napoli numbers, and they’re fine … but in the slumps, you’ll always be looking for something better.

To me, eventually moving Middlebrooks across the diamond will decrease his value. And let’s admit it: We still have no idea what he will ultimately be.

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So far, in 128 career Major League games and 502 plate appearances, here are Middlebrooks’s numbers:

Year Age Tm G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS OPS+
2012 23 BOS 75 286 267 34 77 14 0 15 54 4 13 70 .288 .325 .509 .835 120
2013 24 BOS 53 216 203 19 39 13 0 9 25 0 9 60 .192 .228 .389 .617 63
2 Yrs 128 502 470 53 116 27 0 24 79 4 22 130 .247 .283 .457 .741 96
162 Game Avg. 162 635 595 67 147 34 0 30 100 5 28 165 .247 .283 .457 .741 96
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 7/15/2013.

Fiddling around on baseball-reference’s incredible Play Index, I punched in a range of numbers similar to Middlebrooks’s career totals so far in search of players who had similar totals in one season. So, searching for single seasons in which a player had fewer than 550 plate appearances and an OPS below .770, but with more than 21 homers and 110 strikeouts, here’s a condensed version of what I got.

Player Year PA HR SO OPS Tm G AB R H 2B RBI BB BA OBP SLG
Dayan Viciedo 2012 543 25 120 .744 CHW 147 505 64 129 18 78 28 .255 .300 .444
Jarrod Saltalamacchia 2012 448 25 139 .742 BOS 121 405 55 90 17 59 38 .222 .288 .454
Alfonso Soriano 2011 508 26 113 .759 CHC 137 475 50 116 27 88 27 .244 .289 .469
Chris Davis 2009 419 21 150 .726 TEX 113 391 48 93 15 59 24 .238 .284 .442
Brian Daubach 2000 549 21 130 .764 BOS 142 495 55 123 32 76 44 .248 .315 .448
Russ Davis 1999 478 21 111 .739 SEA 124 432 55 106 17 59 32 .245 .304 .435
Pete Incaviglia 1989 495 21 136 .745 TEX 133 453 48 107 27 81 32 .236 .293 .453
Bo Jackson 1988 468 25 146 .758 KCR 124 439 63 108 16 68 25 .246 .287 .472
Ron Kittle 1986 422 21 110 .705 TOT 116 376 42 82 13 60 35 .218 .284 .420
Dave Hostetler 1982 466 22 113 .733 TEX 113 418 53 97 12 67 42 .232 .300 .433
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 7/16/2013.

Well, I think we’d all be OK if he’s the next Chris Davis, though it took him a lot of hopeless swings before he became this Chris Davis. And, you know, Bo was cool. But otherwise, that’s a pretty terrifying group. There’s no David Wright to be found, and the presence of Russ Davis, a one-time hot shot prospect with the Yankees, is chilling.

I should note that this is not a complete list. There were three Dave Kingman seasons, which I removed out of principle. Three Rob Deer seasons also popped up, but I lopped ’em off because he walked a lot (89 times one season). There was a down season for Willie Stargell on the list. But otherwise … I mean, I don’t think anyone around here is actually hoping he’s the next Jarrod Saltalamacchia offensively, you know? Or Brian Daubach, the kind of first baseman that always begs an upgrade.

If you look at Middlebrooks’s 162-game totals averages — 30 homers, 100 RBIs, 165 whiffs — there’s another former Red Sox third baseman who sort of compares:


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Year Tm G PA AB R H 2B HR RBI SB BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS OPS+
1977 BOS 159 637 593 77 157 33 30 112 5 27 162 .265 .300 .489 .789 101
BOS (6 yrs) 623 2429 2230 285 561 98 94 358 10 147 495 .252 .296 .439 .735 93
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 7/16/2013.

I’ll admit my bias upfront — Hobson was my favorite player as a kid, and I’m irrational when it comes to his contributions to the Red Sox. But that ’77 season, in which he set a Red Sox record for homers by a third baseman while usually batting ninth, was a fine one, especially in an era when on-base percentage was little more than an element in Earl Weaver‘s secret formula.
Hobson’s career was derailed by too many dive bars and dives into the bat rack, with an assist to Don Zimmer, a manager who didn’t have the good sense to take him out of the lineup in ’78 when he was adjusting bone chips in his elbow before he threw.
Middlebrooks isn’t David Wright, though Bogaerts may be. We hope he’s not Russ Davis. But Butch Hobson ’77?
I could live with that for a half-dozen years or so, with Iglesias at short if he continues to hit enough and Bogaerts if he doesn’t.
If Bogaerts does move to third, then Middlebrooks is an appealing trade chip.
Just don’t let Zimmer anywhere near him. And don’t move him to first base.

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