July 1, 2012

Who's next? Middlebrooks gets his chance, others may follow

Fan favorite Kevin Youkilis has been traded and replaced, and there are plenty of other prospects waiting to get their chance at Fenway Park.

By Kevin Thomas kthomas@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

The transition was supposed to be smoother.

click image to enlarge

Goodbye Youkilis, hello Middlebrooks. Could this be the start of other former Sea Dogs replacing the old guard with the Red Sox?

The Associated Press

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Kevin Youkilis would finish out the final year of his contract and next season, Will Middlebrooks would take over at third base for the Red Sox.

But Middlebrooks spoiled everything. Called up in May for a supposed brief time to fill in for Youkilis and his sore back, Middlebrooks pounded the ball.

Middlebrooks not only fit in, he became one of Boston’s best hitters. The Red Sox couldn’t afford to sit him when Youkilis came back.

“He forced his way into the lineup,” General Manager Ben Cherington said last Sunday, minutes after announcing the trade of Youkilis to the White Sox. “Sometimes opportunities open up and guys just speed the clock up. He has earned the right to be our third baseman.”

Youkilis is out. Middlebrooks is in.

Who’s next?

The Red Sox farm system features a core group of prospects that not only appear headed to Fenway Park someday, but could stay there with a starting job.

Restocking the team with its minor leaguers brings youthful talent to the Red Sox at a good price.

After this season, Boston will still have $127 million tied up with Adrian Gonzalez (through 2018), $102.5 million for Carl Crawford (2017), and a combined $62 million for Josh Beckett and John Lackey (both through 2014).

The minimum salary for a first-year player is $480,000.

The kids are cheaper, and in the case of the recent change at third base, they also can be better.

Here’s a look at the Red Sox, position by position, who is there now and who might be coming up.

CATCHER

Jarrod Saltalamacchia, 27, is having an All-Star caliber year and can become a free agent after next season. Backup Kelly Shoppach, 32, is on a one-year contract.

Ryan Lavarnway may not be as strong defensively as Shoppach, but he can hit (.320 in Pawtucket). He’s expected in Boston next year.

Lavarnway also could be a useful designated hitter when not catching. But like in several scenarios, that will depend on the future of 36-year-old DH David Ortiz.

The Red Sox also have a $2.5 million signee, Blake Swihart, 20, catching in low Class A Greenville.

FIRST BASE

Gonzalez, 30, is signed through 2018. Next.

SECOND BASE

Dustin Pedroia, 28, is signed through 2014 with a club option in 2015. Unless there is an unexpected dropoff, Pedroia will be in Boston a while.

SHORTSTOP

Boston’s most unstable position is manned by Mike Aviles, 31. He will not be a free agent until after the 2014 season. Aviles’ defense has been solid and he’s second on the team with 43 RBI.

Defensive whiz Jose Iglesias will be out of minor league options after this year. He’s batting .260 in Pawtucket, having just come off the disabled list (sore back).

If Iglesias doesn’t work out, the Red Sox have first-round draft pick Deven Marrero just starting his pro career.

THIRD BASE

Boston has some potential prospects there, but Middlebrooks, 23, just got the job.

LEFT FIELD

Crawford, 30, is under contract through 2017. But Ortiz will not DH forever, and Crawford could jump into that role part-time. While Crawford is on the disabled list, Daniel Nava is playing great.

Nava, 29, is one of several outfielders (including Ryan Kalish) playing well enough to earn playing time but could get squeezed out when injured players return.

Boston’s best left field prospect may be Xander Bogaerts, 19, listed by Baseball America as the No. 2 Red Sox prospect behind Middlebrooks. Bogaerts is a shortstop now, but expected to eventually change positions.

CENTER FIELD

Jacoby Ellsbury, 28, is an MVP-type player. He also will be a free agent after next year and his agent is the demanding Scott Boras.

Boston could let Ellsbury walk (or even trade him) and welcome Jackie Bradley Jr., currently in Portland and drawing raves for his hitting, plate discipline and graceful defense (yes, he’s better than Ellsbury in the field).

RIGHT FIELD

Right-handed hitter Cody Ross, 31, is on a one-year contract and left-handed hitter Ryan Sweeney, 27, can be a free agent after next season.

Kalish, 24, may have his sights on the job in the coming years. There is also Bryce Brentz, 23, to consider. He it slugging away in Portland (.294 average/.848 OPS through Thursday) after hitting 30 home runs in Class A last year.

PITCHING

Daisuke Matsuzaka is coming off the books after this year (assuming the Red Sox don’t re-sign him), but that still leaves Beckett and Lackey (both through 2014), Jon Lester (2013, with a club option for 2014) and Clay Buchholz (2016 with club options for the two years after that).

Franklin Morales, who is looking more and more like a starter, is under Red Sox control through 2014.

Rookie Felix Doubront will be with Boston for some time.

But replacements will be needed.

Two top-round picks, Anthony Ranaudo (in Portland) and Matt Barnes (Salem), are the best bets to slide into the rotation in the coming years.

Left-hander Drake Britton is a prospect in Portland, but Boston can’t take its time because Britton is on the 40-man roster and will run out of options after 2014. He could work his way to the majors through the bullpen.

Projecting players to make it to Boston – and stick – is no exact science. In 2008, first baseman Lars Anderson closed the season in Portland hitting .316 with five home runs in 41 games.

Named Boston’s top prospect in 2009, Anderson figured to start the year in Portland, hop up to Pawtucket and make it to the majors at the end of the season. But Anderson slumped in 2009. He has been in the shadows since, especially with Gonzalez signed.

Months before the 2011 season, two prospects were being showcased at the Sea Dogs Hot Stove Dinner – Oscar Tejeda and Middlebrooks. Tejeda, an infielder who moved to the outfield, was released last week. Middlebrooks is in Seattle today as the Red Sox face the Mariners.

Staff Writer Kevin Thomas can be reached at 791-6411 or: kthomas@pressherald.com

Twitter: ClearTheBases

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