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Middlebrooks making a powerful statement

07.10.11 at 7:25 pm ET
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Red Sox prospect Will Middlebrooks has 12 homers in 67 minor league games this year. (Salem Red Sox)

PHOENIX — What to make of Red Sox third base prospect Will Middlebrooks?

“He’s a [expletive] stud,” said one NL talent evaluator.

Middlebrooks has emerged as one of the top Red Sox prospects over the last two years. He is a tremendously athletic 6-foot-4 third baseman who has terrific bat speed, big-time power potential and who consistently grades as one of the top defensive third basemen at every minor league level that he’s played at. Scouts describe him as a potentially above-average defensive third baseman with 20-25 home run power.

The 22-year-old typically puts on a show in batting practice, sending rockets well out of the park. He certainly commands the attention of his teammates both before and during games.

“He’s a guy with amazing power,” said Portland outfielder Chih-Hsien Chiang. “He can share some of his power with me.”

But he is not just a slugger who represents a circus event.

Year after year, his development is evident. After the Sox drafted him in the fifth round of the 2007 draft and signed him away from a two-sport scholarship offer at Texas A&M with a $925,000 bonus, Middlebrooks — one of two Red Sox prospects in the All-Star Futures Game at Chase Field on Sunday — embodied raw talent.

He had tools, but perhaps because he had divided his time in high school between baseball and other sports, he had some developmental ground to make up compared to some of his peers at those levels.

“I was very raw coming out of high school – very raw. I was basically an athlete, not a baseball player,” Middlebrooks explained earlier this year. “I played sports year round. Whatever season it was, I was doing it. I never focused on one sport for a long period of time in high school. … I’m still refining so many things to become a better baseball player.”

The effort is yielding evident results. In his early career, he endured abysmal first halves of the season, first with Short-Season Lowell in 2008 and then with Single-A Greenville in 2009. As the season progressed, he would find his way and work his stats up towards respectablity.

Last year, however, he got off to a scorching start for Hi-A Salem of the Carolina League, earning All-Star honors en route to a year where he hit .276 with a .770 OPS, 12 homers and 70 RBI while being recognized as the top defensive third baseman in the league.

This year, with Double-A Portland, he has concluded a huge first half that netted him both an invite both to the Futures Game and a berth in the Eastern League All-Star Game later in the week.

In 63 games with the Sea Dogs, he hit .315 with a .359 OBP, .498 slugging mark and .857 OPS, along with nine homers and 43 RBI, as the batting practice shows that he routinely puts on have translated with increasing frequency to games. His average, slugging and OPS have all gone up in each of his pro seasons, and he’s currently on pace to achieve new career highs in every major offensive category (average, OBP, slugging, OPS, homers and RBI) while in Double-A.

“There was a development curve, and I think he’s finally on top of that,” said Sox area scout Jim Robinson, who scouted Middlebrooks in high school. “His first couple years, it took him a long time to get going and warmed up. The good thing about that is he always improved as the season went along. Now he’s putting good starts to his career, and that bodes well.”

Middlebrooks also tacked on three more homers in four games during a brief rehab assignment with the Lowell Spinners. However, his teammates ensure that he is somewhat sheepish about padding his stats, even as he notes the work that has gone into getting them where they are.

“I would love to count those [three homers with Lowell]. I think they count for the year but not in Portland. The guys give me heck about it. I like to say [he has] 12 [homers this year]. But I figure nine in Portland is what it is,” said Middlebrooks. “I don’t have near as many doubles as I did at this point last year but I have more home runs. Some of those balls are backspinning out of there. It comes with age, you get stronger, and I’m learning my swing.

“That just goes back to my approach that I’ve been working on for the last four years. know what pitches I can handle, know the pitchers, study the pitchers. Study the game. Know what to expect. And when you get it, don’t miss.”

That is an approach that Middlebrooks now seems to be delivering with more consistency than ever, something that has helped him emerge as one of the top prospects in the Sox system and one of the best third-base prospects in the game. His performance this season lends further credence to the notion that he will be pushing soon for his first taste of the majors.

The Sox will have to add him to the 40-man roster this winter in order to keep him away from being taken by other clubs in the Rule 5 draft. That being the case, it is conceivable that he could get a September call-up from the Sox this year; even if the organization follows a more conservative timetable for him, Middlebrooks has thrust himself into position for big league consideration no later than the 2012 season.

A normal progression would suggest that if he continues his improvement as he advances up the ladder, Middlebrooks could emerge as an everday player in the majors by late-2012 or early 2013. Coincidentally, current Sox third baseman Kevin Youkilis is signed through 2012 with a team option for 2013, meaning that Middlebrooks could make a case as his successor.

That, however, is all well down the road. It would be a mistake to assume that a player’s development — particularly as a 22-year-old who remains two levels away from the majors — will continue along such a direct path. All the same, it is almost natural to forecast big things for Middlebrooks, who is emerging as the sort of power hitting prospect whom the Sox have rarely produced in recent years.

The Futures Game represented an enticing milestone for Middlebrooks, a hint of what lies ahead at the highest levels of competition. As such, he described the game — in which he went 1-for-2 with a single through the left side of the infield, while also failing to glove a hard hit grounder to third in the first inning that kicked off his glove for a double (“I should have made that play,” he admitted) — as “awesome. Awesome. Hitting in a big league stadium is so fun. You see the ball so well.”

Middlebrooks is looking forward to future opportunities to experience that setting. While it took an exhibition game to give him the opportunity to experience the sharpened visual environment of a big league ballpark, Middlebrooks looks forward to the day when he will take permanent residence in such a venue.

“I just try to use it as a stepping stone. This is something in the journey. We’re close. All of us are close. Most of us are Double-A, Triple-A guys. You’re one phone call away. You’ve got to be ready,” said Middlebrooks. “You never know. I’m trying to stay healthy, play good baseball. That’s all I can do.”

Read More: 2011 mlb all-star game, all-star futures game, Will Middlebrooks,
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