Waiting in the Wings: Will Middlebrooks

PHOENIX, AZ - JULY 10: U.S. Futures All-Star Will Middlebrooks #16 of the Boston Red Sox throws the ball to first base during the 2011 XM All-Star Futures Game at Chase Field on July 10, 2011 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

WIll Middlebrooks - 3B - Red Sox - The multi-talented Middlebrooks dropped to the 5th round of the 2007 draft because he had a strong commitment to Texas A&M and concerns over his signability...In other words, money and money. Middlebrooks was able to fire low 90s fastballs, and showed feel for a curve as a pitcher, and also had a future on the football field. However, his best - and chosen - area of skill was and is, third base. MIddlebrooks has moved steadily up the chain, and notably, has improved at each stop along the way. He's Boston's top prospect according to some (Baseball America) and not to others (Keith Law), but he is making one thing clear in 2012 - he will be in Boston soon.

Learn more about Middlebrooks after the jump...

Middlebrooks might have had a rough introduction to pro ball in 2008, but since then it's been all sunshine and lollipops, as each subsequent year has been a career year and 2011 was no exception. Setting career highs in home runs (20), RBI (88), average (.285), OPS (834) and hits (121) between Double- and Triple-A, Middlebrooks continued his ascent up the MLB and prospect ladder. He hasn't broken his pattern of improving at each level in 2012 either, as he already has produced a four game home run streak, with a total of nine on the season, and is currently sporting a 1221 OPS. He is also walking at a higher clip with seven walks in 77 at-bats (6.7%) compared to 24 in 427 at-bats (5.1%) in 2011. The big change however, is in his K%, as he's currently at 13.3% compared to his previous low of 23.9%. Obviously, all small sample size (SSS) warning apply and there is likely to be a fair amount of regression to the mean in this situation, but all these signs follow Middlebrooks' pattern of improving each year. Another thing to note is that his ISO is an otherworldy .386 right now, and his previous career high (over any meaningful number of at-bats) is .218, set last year. Some may point to his unusually high BABIP in 2011 as an explanation for his career year, but a closer look reveals that he's had consistently high BABIP's throughout his career, so I wouldn't expect a regression in that area. As he learns to make more contact, he will continue to increase his production levels.

Middlebrooks' stats are just catching up to his image, as he's always looked like the ideal third baseman. At 6'4, Middlebrooks' has a strong frame that he's beginning to fill out, which has helped turn some of his long fly balls into home runs. He has a bit of a rotational swing that limits his power, but his added muscle has helped mitigate that affect. Another limiting factor for Middlebrooks is his approach at the plate, as evidenced by his 5% walk rate in 2011. He has been especially susceptible to plus off-speed offerings, something that he will see a steady diet of until he adjusts. While he has below average speed, Middlebrooks has good footwork and agility in the field, and given his pitching background, more than enough arm for the position. He projects to add value on both sides of the ball, and while I wouldn't expect him to hit .300 despite 2011 and his torrid start in 2012, the .270s are well within reach. 25 home runs seem like a reasonable possibility as well, as long as he can continue tapping into his pull power without getting too homer conscious, certainly no easy task.

If Middlebrooks keeps doing what he's been doing, he could be a superstar in the majors. I wouldn't project that for him though, as above-average third baseman with a few all-star appearances seems a lot more likely. Playing half his games in Fenway certainly won't hurt his batting stats, especially since he does well to go to opposite field. He looks to me like a player that will be overvalued as an offensive asset, but correctly valued overall thanks to his impressive defensive abilities. While I expected him to spend (and need) a full season at Triple-A, Middlebrooks has certainly pushed up his timetable and looks ready to contribute to the big league team as soon as an injury strikes at either first or third base. To be clear, Middlebrooks is not a finished product, nor a perfect one. He has several areas to work on, but given his production despite those flaws, one has to excited at his prospects for success as soon as the second half of 2012.

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