Making the tough call goes with the territory of being a baseball general manager, knowing full well that rosters arenâ€™t built on favoritism. The never-ending quest to explore every imaginable avenue in search of talent is one that canâ€™t be entered into lightly for fear of making a decision that comes back to haunt the ballclub.
With that as the backdrop, Theo Epsteinâ€™s evaluating glasses figure to get plenty of usage as the Boston G.M. spends the 2012 season drawing conclusions regarding the decisions to be made relating to the teamâ€™s long-term answer at third base.
Will Middlebrooks is advancing his career at a most opportune time. In fact, last Fridayâ€™s arrival of this third base prospect in Pawtucket after a strong season with Double-A Portland fuels the suggestion that he could be the heir apparent to current incumbent Kevin Youkilis.
Youkilis, whose contract expires after next season, with Boston holding a $14 million team option for 2013 that also includes a $1.25-million buyout, has gotten old before our eyes this season. His present disabled list status notwithstanding, the 32-year-old has spent most of 2011 looking like a ballplayer who would be better served to get away from the hot corner and return to first base, the position where Youkilis compiled the best numbers of his career.
By acquiring Adrian Gonzalez last offseason to give Boston that slugging first baseman the organization so coveted, the Red Sox in essence kicked off the downward slope of Youkilisâ€™ career. The simple move of relocating Youkilis back to third, a position he played almost exclusively coming up through the minors and the first few seasons of his Boston career, was thought to be a stroke of genius that would save the Sox from stretching the checkbook even further by avoiding bringing in a third baseman from the outside.
All was right, or so it seemed.
This observer started to lend serious credence to the idea of a Middlebrooks-replacing-Youkilis-at-some-point juxtaposition when Boston visited Pittsburgh in late June. It was a three-game series that should be remembered as one that Youkilis dove endlessly to his left but repeatedly came up empty. There were also a few instances when he had trouble cleanly fielding opportunities hit directly at him.
Maybe you chalk it up to a small sample or simply a bad weekend, but thatâ€™s when we decided to throw in a little empirical evidence in order to further explain Youkilisâ€™ performance.
Ultimate Zone Rating helps measure the number of defensive plays a ballplayer makes both inside and outside his defensive zone. In an infielderâ€™s case, should he misplay a ground ball hit one step to his right, he would be marked down one point. An average UZR is considered to be 0.0.
The latest UZR rankings show that Youkilis is at minus-1.6, seventh among MLB third baseman. Old friend Adrian Beltre tops the field with a UZR of 11.0.
Youkilis has often been described as a gamer, the type of player who doesnâ€™t know how to ease up on the gas. Such a style is fine when youâ€™re manning first base, certainly a far less taxing position than third. Yet when you look at Youkilisâ€™ offensive numbers and see heâ€™s on pace to set career lows for single-season batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS, it be might time for Red Sox fans, as painful as it may seem, to put some stock in the future.
Enter Middlebrooks, a 22-year-old native of Texas who has seen the spotlight shine on him repeatedly this season. Being named to the All-Star Futures Game will help get you noticed. As one scout who saw Middlebrooks in person in Arizona last month noted, â€śAll that I keep hearing is that heâ€™ll be the guy.â€ť
A 6-foot-3-inch, 220-pound righthanded hitter, Middlebrooks hit .302 while compiling 18 home runs and 80 RBI in 96 games with Portland. While numbers like those jump immediately off the page â€“ Baseball America tabbed Middlebrooks the best hitting prospect in the Eastern League in a survey compiled by the leagueâ€™s managers â€“ keep in mind that Middlebrooks still has a whole new level of pro ball to master.
Yet as soxprospects.com wrote under Middlebrooksâ€™ scouting report, â€śHeâ€™s just beginning to learn what he can do as a baseball player.â€ť That includes the importance of manning such a critical spot in third base.
â€śItâ€™s nice to have guys who can go out and hit a home run,â€ť said Middlebrooks prior to participating in Futures at Fenway on Saturday, â€śbut at the same time you want to have that guy who can make a play that saves a run. You always want to be reliable defensively, sure.â€ť
Middlebrooks is aware his name is starting to pop up more and more as a potential replacement for Youkilis. The youngster also knows that the day in which the baton is handed off is a decision that will not be his alone to make.
â€śItâ€™s an honor to be in that conversation. With a guy like Youk, heâ€™s a guy you come up through the organization looking up to,â€ť he said. â€śWeâ€™ve got a good front office and you just let them do their job and trust every move they make.â€ť
â€śHeâ€™s got a lot of talent, but I would say he could play on a lot of big league clubs already,â€ť remarked new PawSox pitcher Alex Wilson, no doubt formulating his opinion based on what he saw as a teammate of Middlebrooks while the two were with Portland this year. â€śHeâ€™s going to be a talent for years to come and I think Red Sox Nation is really going to like having him around. Heâ€™s going to be a key part of the teamâ€™s success in the future.â€ť
What happens if Middlebrooks has a strong season with Pawtucket in 2012 and Youkilis continues to show signs of slowing down? Does Epstein decide to forgo the player option for 2013 and let Youkilis walk? Epstein has a history in this area, mostly notably when he cut bait with 2004 World Series notables Pedro Martinez, Derek Lowe and Orlando Cabrera, choosing instead to harvest the compensation draft picks that came as a result of the aforementioned signing elsewhere.
Of course Epstein did re-sign Jason Varitek and Mike Lowell, the latter following his MVP showing in the 2007 World Series, a move that the general manager probably wishes he could take back.
Bottom line? Epstein and the front office will have to make a judgment regarding Youkilis and whether Middlebrooks is, indeed, the answer to take over at third base. Itâ€™s a decision that wonâ€™t be made this coming offseason but rather over the balance of the 2012 season.