Monday June 25, 2012 | 12:18 AM

Will Middlebrooks, 24, is officially the new Boston Red Sox starting third baseman. Another former Sea Dogs player makes good in Boston.

But we remember another third baseman, Kevin Youkilis, when he was 24. He was turning into an unlikely prospect, ready to begin the 2003 season in Portland.

Below is my March, 2003 story from spring training (for more current news on the Youkilis trade, see today's STORY and today's COLUMN).

And now for one from our oldies vault:

By KEVIN THOMAS

FORT MYERS, Fla. - There is something about the promising prospect in baseball, especially when his potential is put on display. At Hadlock Field, heads have turned when special players do their thing.

It could be catcher Charles Johnson throwing out a runner in 1994; or Mark Kotsay showing his five-tool ability and climbing the outfield wall for a spectacular catch in 1997; or Josh Beckett winging another fastball in 2001; or Adrian Gonzalez stepping into another smooth swing last season.

This year the Sea Dogs' prospect to watch could be Kevin Youkilis.

He'll step to the plate and soon be on first base. Fans will turn to each other and exclaim, `Wow, that was some base on balls.' "

Youkilis doesn't swing at bad pitches. In 199 pro games he's walked 166 times.

In this new era of the Red Sox, when plate discipline and on-base percentage are to be glorified, Youkilis is their poster boy.

"He's a special hitter, " Sea Dogs Manager Ron Johnson said. "I haven't seen many guys come into pro ball like that, especially if you look at his limited experience. Last year was his first full year.

"His plate discipline is that of a major-league hitter, a good major-league hitter."

Youkilis, a fast-rising third-base prospect in the Boston farm system, gets on base.

His .436 on-base percentage last year was the fifth-best in all of minor leagues. He got a hit or a walk in 119 of the 135 games he played. His career on-base percentage in just 1 1/2 years of pro ball is .457.

Youkilis, 24, started last season in low Class A in Augusta, Ga. He jumped to high Class A Sarasota, Fla., and finished the season in Double-A Trenton, N.J.

According to Baseball America magazine, Youkilis has gone from the Red Sox's No. 29 prospect in 2002 to No. 3 this year.

"We'd love for all our players to progress to where they have that knowledge of the strike zone, " Red Sox General Manager Theo Epstein said.

As Epstein spoke, Youkilis was playing in a minor-league game. He stepped back into the box to face Pete Fisher of the Twins (a UMaine pitcher in 1996 before he transferred).

Fisher had a 2-2 count on Youkilis and fired a fastball in, about an inch inside. Youkilis let it go. Full count. The next pitch was just as close, but still not over the plate. Ball four.

The Red Sox applaud his walks, but also remind that Youkilis isn't just a base-on-balls machine. When he moved up to Double-A - supposedly the biggest jump for a minor leaguer - he batted .344.

"There's more to the player than his plate discipline, " Epstein said. "He gets to great hitter counts and he doesn't miss the ball.

"We asked him to get into the best shape of his life. He worked out at the Athletes Performance Institute at Tempe, Ariz. (made famous by Nomar Garciaparra's brutal workouts) and is now much trimmer, more agile. He turned himself into a good defender at third base."

Epstein won't commit that Youkilis is headed to Portland. He still could be shipped to Triple-A Pawtucket. But it would be rare, since he has only 44 games of Double-A on his resume.

"Gee, I hope we get him, " said Johnson, who managed Youkilis in Trenton. "Kevin comes with a lot of self-confidence and a lot of self-discipline. Kevin has had that since he walked in the door."

Youkilis is working out with the Triple-A team now, but knows he could go to Double-A after the major-league club makes more cuts.

"I'm not worried where I go, " Youkilis said. "I just want to go out and have a good year."

Youkilis hails from Cincinnati. He started swinging a bat in his backyard where his dad built a batting cage. He's got the quick hands to make contact. The plate discipline came from a revelation at the University of Cincinnati.

"I learned that a lot of guys couldn't throw off-speed pitches for strikes, " he said. "Fastball is always a pitcher's best pitch, so I learned to hit fastballs."

Youkilis also realized the higher he advanced, the more he would face pitchers who could put a breaking ball over. He adjusted, although he still looks for the fastball.

"I don't mind hitting a breaking ball later in the count, " Youkilis said. "But my approach is that I'm not going to go up and swing at a great (tough) pitch - a pitcher's pitch - unless I have two strikes. I want to hit a hitter's pitch early in the count."

A simple approach with obvious results.

You may guess that a scouting report may say to pitch Youkilis a strike down the middle on the first pitch because he'll take it. Not so.

In Friday's exhibition against the Orioles, Youkilis fouled off the first pitch, then drilled the second to the left-field fence for a double.

"He's a good, all-around player, " Epstein said.

And he could be another prospect to turn heads at Hadlock.


 

 

About this Blog

Kevin Thomas covers baseball and basketball for the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram. He wisely moved to Maine in 1994 after working for the St. Petersburg Times. He is married to Nancy and they have nine children.

Follow his thoughts on the Boston Red Sox and Portland Sea Dogs on Clearing the Bases

Follow his thoughts on the Boston Celtics and Maine Red Claws on Holding Court


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