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Will Middlebrooks showing he belongs

5/8/2012

It was probably somewhere between the first and second home runs Boston Red Sox third baseman Will Middlebrooks bashed in Kansas City on Monday night that the tweets and emails really started coming in: Should I drop Player A to add this awesome prospect? Or can I really trade Player B for him? Middlebrooks is 8-for-21 after four games, with 3 home runs and 9 RBIs, and I'm guessing Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine isn't questioning whether he's mentally or emotionally into the game.

Of course, that last comment was in reference to Valentine questioning Kevin Youkilis' drive a few weeks into the season, and while there's little doubt where Youkilis (back) will slot in when he's ready to play again -- and it will be at third base -- there's no denying that Middlebrooks certainly looks ready to help the Red Sox. There's no room at first base, unless Adrian Gonzalez going 0-for-8 on Sunday (including a strikeout versus an infielder who was pitching) was truly a harbinger, and the designated hitter spot is ably filled by David Ortiz, the team leader in home runs and RBIs.

While Middlebrooks is good enough to stick around for Boston and hit for power, a healthy Youkilis is certainly good enough to send him back to Triple-A Pawtucket until opportunity presents itself again. It seems doubtful either one of them, or Gonzalez, will play left field any time soon. It took Middlebrooks four games to match the nine RBIs Youkilis delivered over 18 contests, and he already has surpassed Youk's extra-base hits. This could all be viewed as ironic, but no matter how much Red Sox fans pine for this kid to stay in Boston, if Youkilis is ready to play Monday, when he's eligible to come off the DL, he will, and the kid will not.

This is the primary reason I cautioned fantasy owners about switching out relatively safe veterans at third base, such as Chase Headley, Martin Prado and Aramis Ramirez, to acquire Middlebrooks as a fantasy free agent. Sure, each of those veterans present levels of concern, be it with health, power or batting average, but at least their long-term playing time is secure. I would, however, take the shot on Middlebrooks and cut the likes of Ryan Roberts, Brent Morel and Ian Stewart. It's not like they're producing at a high level, so the risk is worth the reward.

Just to prepare people in advance, especially those competing in on-base percentage formats or leagues that favor walks, Middlebrooks isn't going to be like Youkilis. One of them (Youk) was once labeled the "Greek god of walks," while the other is going to do a lot more swinging early in the count. Middlebrooks is 10 years younger than Youkilis -- he's 23 -- but across three levels of the minor leagues last season, he drew 26 walks versus 114 strikeouts. He produced 50 extra-base hits (23 home runs) in those 116 games, and that power should translate to the majors, especially since he drives the ball to the opposite field. But there's little similarity with Youkilis when it comes to on-base percentage.

Middlebrooks will cool off, but for now he's hitting strikes and producing runs. Eventually opposing pitchers will make him chase off-speed stuff a foot off the plate, and the rookie will need to make adjustments. So far he's 7-for-14 on pitches in the strike zone, with five extra-base hits and a crazy .786 isolated power. That cannot continue. Middlebrooks homered just inside the right-field foul pole Monday, then smacked a double to center field and homered to left field. Each home run for the right-handed hitter came off a lefty. It's rare to see a young hitter hit to all fields, but plate discipline does remain a concern, and we need to see him hit right-handed pitching consistently.

If Youkilis was done for the season, or unceremoniously shipped off to another team today, which isn't happening, I think Middlebrooks would hit around .260 this season with 18 home runs, and that would be enough to make him a borderline top-15 third baseman. A year ago, Chipper Jones hit .275 with 18 home runs and 70 RBIs, and it was good enough for the No. 14 spot among third basemen on the ESPN Player Rater. Comparing a rookie with four big league games to Jones is kind of ridiculous, but in terms of the sheer numbers, this gives an idea what Middlebrooks can do, and I view it more as the ceiling for 2012 than a given.

Give Middlebrooks credit for his Sunday grand slam and the rockets he hit Monday, but the third-base job isn't safely his until at least the 2013 season, which is why fantasy owners shouldn't get overly excited. Youkilis does have value and I expect he'll return in a week healthy enough to save his season. If we find out his back problem is more serious, that changes things. Youkilis is available in 15 percent of ESPN standard mixed leagues today, and I think he's a wise free-agent signing. Durability is an issue, but he's not too old or injured to produce the 17 home runs and 80 RBIs he did last season over 120 games, or hit .307 with a high walk rate like in 2010. Don't give up on him. Add Middlebrooks for the short term if you don't have a better option, but be prepared for his pending -- if unfortunate, for eager Red Sox fans -- demotion to Pawtucket.