January 23, 2011

On Baseball: Middlebrooks looking to anchor Sea Dogs at third base

By Kevin Thomas kthomas@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND - Will Middlebrooks woke up in Boston on Friday morning, saw the snow falling and wondered about a commitment in Maine that night.

"My first thought was, 'Uh-oh, we're not going to make it up there,' " said Middlebrooks, a slight Southern accent coming out. "If we were in Texas, there is no way we were going to make it here. We don't have the machinery.

"But the roads were just fine."

New England can boast a few more snowplows than Texarkana in northeast Texas. So Middlebrooks made it to the Sea Dogs Hot Stove Dinner in plenty of time.

But there are questions about Middlebrooks' ultimate destination: Will he get to the big leagues and, if so, how soon?

"He brings a lot of good qualities to the table," said Mike Hazen, Boston Red Sox director of player development.

Those qualities may translate into an honest-to-goodness five-tool player: hit, hit with power, run, throw and field.

Middlebrooks, 22, is scheduled to be the Portland Sea Dogs' starting third baseman this season. After shortstop Jose Iglesias, Middlebrooks is in a group of touted infield prospects that includes Pawtucket's Yamaico Navarro and incoming Sea Dogs second baseman Oscar Tejeda.

"He has the physical size (6-foot-3, 200 pounds), strength and athleticism," Hazen said. "As a former high school quarterback, we knew he was a pretty good athlete."

Middlebrooks turned down a football-baseball scholarship offer to Texas A&M after the Red Sox drafted him in the fifth round of the 2007 draft and then offered him a bonus ($925,000) usually reserved for first-round picks.

Middlebrooks signed late and did not play that year. After short-season Lowell in 2008, Middlebrooks moved on to low Class A Greenville, then advanced Class A Salem last year.

His numbers don't jump off the chart but, every year, Middlebrooks improves, hitting .276 last season with 12 home runs and 70 RBI.

"We're starting to see the power play a little bit. We saw that in Salem last year," Hazen said. "We're starting to see the approach get a little more consistent on a day-to-day basis. He's improving tremendously at third base."

Middlebrooks was a shortstop in high school.

"Third base was hard," Middlebrooks said. "You don't have near as much time as you do at shortstop to field ground balls.

"But things are running a lot smoother now. Offensively, I think it's picking up every year. If I keep reaching higher levels every year, that's a positive."

Third base is an interesting position for the Red Sox. They did not re-sign Adrian Beltre, and will move Kevin Youkilis from first to third, after signing Adrian Gonzalez.

Youkilis, who turns 32 in March, is signed with Boston through 2012 (with a club option for 2013).

Where would Middlebrooks fit in?

"I try to keep my head out of that. Try not to play GM," Middlebrooks said. "But I notice it."

Whether the Red Sox notice Middlebrooks is up to him. He's already been invited to the rookie camp this month, a sign that he is doing something right.

And now he will take over third base at Hadlock Field. It has not exactly been a springboard for major league success. Few have played there and made it to the majors for long. Youkilis (Class of '03) is the exception.

Middlebrooks would like to follow those footsteps.

"I want to get up there as soon as I can," he said.

WHO'S ON FIRST? While one corner infield spot is taken, who plays the other? Now that Lars Anderson is in Triple-A and Anthony Rizzo has been traded, the depth is gone.

Salem's first baseman for most of last year was Drew Hedman, who batted .230. Greenville had a couple of good hitters at first base, but both Chris McGuiness and Mike Thomas were traded to Texas in the Jarod Saltalamacchia deal.

Hazen said Portland will likely use Jorge Padron, 24, at first. He began last year in Salem and then came to Portland, playing the outfield and batting .286 in 47 games.

Hazen also said a minor league free agent could be brought in, or someone else in-house who could both back up at catcher and first. (Yes, Portland will have Ryan Lavarnway and Tim Federowicz catching, but because one of them will likely DH when not behind the plate, the Sea Dogs could use a third catcher.)

JON STILL is no longer an option at first base. Still played in Portland in 2009, went to spring training last year, but then did not report to Portland.

Still, 26, went home to Mississippi and did not play last year. He never said why, but a lack of playing time may have been an issue.

The Red Sox officially severed ties last week when they released him.

JOSE IGLESIAS is expected back to Portland at the beginning of the season -- maybe. Iglesias, 21, played 57 games for the Sea Dogs in his first full season because of a hand injury.

But he is entering his second season on the 40-man roster and the Red Sox would like to move him along, if he is ready.

"At the end of the season and in the Arizona Fall League he held his own and did well," Hazen said. "He'll come in to big-league camp and probably get a lot of reps early."

RYAN WESTMORELAND was always a welcomed guest at Hadlock Field last year, visiting coaches and some of his former teammates.

Westmoreland, 20, is recovering from brain surgery, performed nearly a year ago, to remove a cavernous malformation.

The outlook is "cautiously optimistic."

"He's down in Fort Myers working out, hitting and throwing," Hazen said. "We're not going to make any hard-line prediction or a time frame when he will come out and actually play in a game. Taking it day by day.

"We're seeing steady progress. It still is going to take a while to get him back to where he was. ... You'd be amazed at the amount of drive in this kid. It's inspiring."

ALSO IN FORT MYERS is former Sea Dogs pitcher Junichi Tazawa, who missed last season because of Tommy John surgery. Hazen said he is throwing and should appear in some spring training games.

Staff Writer Kevin Thomas can be reached at 791-6411 or at:

kthomas@pressherald.com

 

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