Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Left Side of the Infield

Here’s a post I wrote today, before the Red Sox signed Stephen Drew and slid X over to the third sack. If you just want to skip down to where I discuss acquiring Drew, I won’t hold it against you:

Will Middlebrooks hit the DL on Saturday for the second time this season, this time with a broken (fractured? what’s the difference?) finger. According to multiple reports, the finger was black, swollen, and generally disgusting. There is no timetable for Middlebrooks’ return, and finger/wrist injuries are always terrible news for hitters, especially power hitters.  Here’s guessing that he misses at least the majority of time remaining before the All-Star break.  Even when Willie Middle does return, he will have to prove that a banged-up finger hasn’t taken away the one asset he showed from time to time this season: power. And that’s probably being nice.  Take a look at Willie’s stats from 2013-2014:

Year Age Tm Lg G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
2013 24 BOS AL 94 374 348 41 79 18 0 17 49 20 98 .227 .271 .425 .696
2014 25 BOS AL 21 82 71 9 14 3 0 2 9 7 23 .197 .305 .324 .629
3 Yrs 190 742 686 84 170 35 0 34 112 40 191 .248 .296 .448 .743
162 Game Avg. 162 633 585 72 145 30 0 29 95 34 163 .248 .296 .448 .743
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 5/20/2014.
This is not very good. It doesn’t exactly scream out CORNERSTONE!, but he is still young and young power hitting corner infielders don’t exactly grow on trees these days (as will become apparent later in this post).  But the numbers don’t lie. Middlebrooks has only five extra base hits this season, and is slashing a woeful .197/.305/.324.  All this on top of shoddy defense at the hot corner makes Middlebrooks’ future in some doubt. There are some who say Willie should be moved over to 1B, and some who say Willie might end up being a AAAA player. (Quick tangent: if Middlebrooks ends up being a AAAA player who is shuttled back and forth from the majors to the minors and is traded around to a few different franchises, instead of being Boston’s cornerstone third sacker, how quickly will Jenny Dell dump him? Fifteen seconds? Twenty? Maybe I’m underselling the lovely Jenny and her Dells, but I can’t see her getting married to a journeyman. This, of course, only adds to the pressure mounting on Willie.)  Of course, Middlebrooks hasn’t been able to truly show what he can do over an extended period of time without getting hurt. He has shown signs of significantly improving his approach at the plate and plate discipline this season after swinging at everything last season, which was the main reason why he spent much of 2013’s pennant chase in AAA. A strained calf and a broken finger later, Willie is forcing the Red Sox to re-think the left side of their infield mid-season.  

Let’s break down the potential options for the left side of the Red Sox infield:

Option #1: Plug Brock Holt in as the every-day third sacker, hope that Willie’s finger heals quickly, then plug Willie Middle back into the every-day 3B role as soon as he is ready and hope to see continued improvement.  The key to this plan is Brock Holt. Can Holt be more than a temporary fill-in/utility infielder in the big leagues? Let’s take a look at Holt’s stat table:


Year Age Tm Lg G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
2013 25 BOS AL 26 72 59 9 12 2 0 0 11 7 4 .203 .275 .237 .513
2014 26 BOS AL 9 35 30 3 8 0 1 0 4 4 5 .267 .343 .333 .676
BOS (2 yrs) 35 107 89 12 20 2 1 0 15 11 9 .225 .298 .270 .568
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 5/20/2014.

After 107 plate appearances in a Red Sox uniform, Holt has three extra base hits. Three. His slugging percentage is almost the same as his batting average. His OPS is lower than a good hitter’s slugging percentage.  Simply put, the dude is a little slap-hitting weasel who seems to have the ceiling of Nick Punto. Could he fill in for a month? Probably. It would help if Ortiz, Napoli, Victorino, Pedroia, and Pierzynski were all raking up to their potential, then we could get by with a slap weasel in the nine spot as long as Holt continues playing average or better defense. But can we get by with Punto Jr. when the rest of the lineup is also sputtering? While it helps that Holt is a left-handed hitter (since the Sox have been somewhere between below-average to abysmal against right-handed pitching which only makes up about 66% of the league), it would help more if he were a good left-handed hitter.  And then there is the question of Middlebrooks: do the Red Sox want to fill the 3B position with Punto Light for a month, then hand it back over to Middlebrooks coming off a broken finger and already struggling in 2014? As I mentioned above, I wouldn’t be surprised if Willie Middle lingers on the DL and on rehab stints for quite a long time. Can a team with Brock Holt as their everyday 3B win the suddenly-crappy AL East?

And then there’s this: how badly do the Red Sox want to win the pennant in 2014? I know that sounds like a stupid question, of course every team wants to win every season right? Especially as defending champs, who wouldn’t want to repeat as World Series champions for the first time since the ’98-’00 Yankees went back-to-back-to-back? But still, I wonder.  I wonder if you gave Cherington truth serum if he wouldn’t admit that he would be okay with finishing 2014 with 80-84 wins, getting Xander, Bradley, Middlebrooks, Christian Vazquez, and a few of the stud arms a ton of reps, keeping the cupboard stocked full of depth, and heading into 2015 ready to really have a stacked lineup. If this is the case, then by all means lock Holt into the 3B slot for now and call it good. But if we’re aggressively chasing a repeat title, then I say we have to go with another option.

Option #2: Garin Cecchini. Tim Britton of the Providence Journal had an interesting piece on Cecchini as soon as Middlebrooks went to the DL. The piece managed to be both encouraging and depressing all at the same time. On the one hand, you have to love the confidence that Cecchini has in himself and his ability to get better defensively at 3B.  The piece contends that he has already gotten considerably better at the hot corner, and the Sox have assigned him a well-respected speciality coach to work with him daily to get better. These are all positives for the #4 ranked prospect on the Red Sox Maineiacs Top 20 for May. But, they sound like positives for 2015 or 2016, not May of 2014. The same piece also contains this little nugget: “Cecchini acknowledges that he isn’t where he wants to be. This was especially obvious last week, after the four errors in Indianapolis — two with his glove and two with his arm. For a player who has strived to be more consistent in the field, it was a frustrating series.” That hardly sounds like a guy ready to get the call up to the big leagues. Could the Red Sox say to hell with it and throw Cecchini’s left-handed hitting bat into the lineup and hope he doesn’t set the all-time record for errors by a 3B? I don’t see it.

Option #3: Stephen Drew. This is the option that seems to be garnering the most support amongst the various Red Sox scribes and blogs. As Rob Bradford claims, it would seem logical to call up ‘ol Steve-O, sign him to a one-year deal for basically whatever he wants, plug him back into shortstop, slide the X Man (Tangent: Xander acknowledged in this ESPN Boston Red Sox Blog fluff piece today that the fans want him to use “X Gon’ Give It To ‘Ya” by DMX as his walk-up music, and he might change it. Yes, yes, and YES! Sign me up! Forever and ever, that will be played in RSM live chats whenever X does something noteworthy)  back over to 3B and BLAM-O! we kill several birds with one stone: X’s lackluster defense at short gets replaced, we re-convene the left side of the infield that led us to the World Series last year, and we add another sorely-needed left-handed hitter to the lineup.  Everybody wins, right? Get Scott Boras on the phone!  

Well....not so fast. Count me among the Red Sox faithful who believe that now that we have installed Xander at SS, we should leave him there for the next decade or two. What are we going to do to X’s development if we move him from 3B mostly in 2013, to a stint at SS followed by 3B in 2014, and back to SS in 2014? By all accounts, X is an exceptional kid not just in his talent, but in his approach and mental acumen. But jerking around his position like that makes me nervous.  That has to stunt development, right? Right?

Beyond the impact on X, it seems to me a stretch that we could sign Drew off the street, plug him into the lineup, and expect him to perform up to his best 2013 levels. What if it takes Drew a month to get back into the groove of hitting major league pitching? What if he hits .145 for June? Well, in that case he would fit right in with X, Bradley, and Middlebrooks. But the point is, couldn’t Brock Holt at least hit .145 and not force X to switch positions? 

Option #4: Re-sign Ryan Roberts - HAHAHAHAHAHA

Option #5: Mookie Betts?!?!?!?!?!?!

Option #6: Trade for a 3B - obviously moot now.”

So, the questions about the Drew acquisition remain:
  • How will moving Xander back and forth between SS and 3B affect him?
  • How quickly will Stephen Drew be able to hit major league pitching with consistency?
  • Can Drew provide this lineup with some extra pop from the left side?
  • Will Drew be as good defensively as he was last year?
  • Is this a pivotal moment with Will Middlebrooks and the Red Sox?
I smell another Red Sox Maineiacs round table post coming soon!

Overall, I feel a good vibe about getting last year’s late-season left side back together for 2014. I also think Will Middlebrooks is a man who is feeling pressure from all sides to be a major league slugger, when maybe he still isn’t quite ready for that. But I also think he will be a major part of this team down the stretch, and they will be in the AL East race until the end due to the division’s unforeseen mediocrity.

3 comments:

  1. I would like to think if Middlebrooks had not broke his finger, this chain of events would not have been set in motion. The more I think about moving Xander off shortstop after 1 1/2 months, the less I like it. But I cannot see this club playing Brock Holt at third base for a month or more either. Color me skeptical about the Drew signing, and color me equally skeptical if the Sox really picture Bogaerts as a shortstop going forward ( as Xander obiviously does).

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  2. I think Middlebrooks is a stiff. I think you don't even include him in your plans and if he happens to turn things around - great - but don't plan around him. He's had ZERO production for 2 years. If you have a spot on the roster, keep him around for a start a week and have him get a 1B and OF glove to play in a blowout. Or send him to AAA and leave him there. As things stand now he can't contribute in any category and is actually worse than Holt.

    Don't get me wrong. I hope I'm misjudging him. We could use even an average 3B type (.260/.330/.450 18HR) but I don't think Will at this point can even sniff average and might struggle to get above the Mendoza line. He has defensive SS numbers at a premium offensive position.

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    1. Sadly, yes. I think we all want our guys to succeed and have a hard time giving up on them as Red Sox fans, but at this point Willie Middle hasn't proved that he can be either a productive major league hitter or a top-notch defensive third baseman. It may be that his Red Sox destiny is to be a right-handed Mike Carp, with the added bonus of being able to play 3B or 2B (although the Sox need all the LH hitters they can get at the moment, unless the rumors that Carp has been bitching about being in and out of the lineup lately are true). Or, Middlebrooks could end up making his way to another team, hopefully in the NL, staying healthy for an extended stretch, and finally living up to his 25-30 HR, 80-100 RBI potential. But his opportunity to prove he can be that guy in Boston is growing short. He better enjoy those Dells while he can.

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