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Red Sox Minor League Roundup: Why Will Middlebrooks isn’t being promoted right now

04.26.12 at 9:31 am ET
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He did it again.

For the sixth time in eight games, Will Middlebrooks went deep, this time taking Yankees prospect Adam Warren deep to right-center in a display of the opposite field power that has been a hallmark of his emergence as a top prospect. The 23-year-old went 2-for-5 with that homer (his ninth of the season), and though he struck out three times (a season-high in strikeouts, and just the second time this year that he’s struck out more than once in a game), his numbers remain extraordinary.

Middlebrooks is hitting .377 with a .429 OBP, .729 slugging mark and 1.221 OPS along with nine homers and 27 RBI. His three strikeouts on Wednesday notwithstanding, he’s controlling the strike zone in impressive fashion, having walked seven times and punched out just 13.

All of this comes at a time when big league third baseman Kevin Youkilis has gotten off to a difficult start. After going 1-for-4 against the Twins on Wednesday, Youkilis is hitting .204/.267/.296/.563. Middlebrooks has almost as many homers (9) as Youkilis has hits (11).

And so, it has become a popular line of thinking to suggest that the Red Sox should call up Middlebrooks and let him displace the incumbent. How much thought have the Sox given to such a scenario?

“There’s been no talk of that,” said a team source this week. “None.”

Why not? A few reasons.

First, there’s the question of sample size and track record. Youkilis has a great one at the big league level, having been an above-average everyday player for six seasons while performing at an offensive level matched by only a handful or so of players over the last four years. If the slow starts of David Ortiz in 2009 and 2010 offered any lesson, it was that you remain patient with players capable of producing at an All-Star level. If Youkilis is able to rebound to perform at his more customary .900-plus OPS levels going forward, then the odds are that few players — whether Middlebrooks or anyone else — can match such an impact in the lineup.

Similarly, the incredible performance of Middlebrooks represents something that has occurred in a small stretch. Just as it would have been a mistake to judge him from his 16-game struggle in Pawtucket at the end of last year, when he hit .161/.200/.268/.468, it would also be premature to get carried away with what he’s done in 19 games this year. He has shown a great deal of progress, both in his command of the strike zone and in the fact that he is now maturing to the point where he’s adding pull power to his prior gap-to-gap power approach, but to promote him now might risk a challenging transition to the majors given the relatively limited number of plate appearances that the 23-year-old has had against the most advanced minor leaguers.

There are plenty of examples of players who went off at the start of their Triple-A careers, got promoted to the majors and ended up being sent back down to the minors after a brief run of being overmatched in the big leagues. The Sox want to avoid such a scenario.

How does Middlebrooks’ development continue to benefit by remaining in the minors at a time when he is pulverizing the competition? A few ways:

– Middlebrooks is seeing a kind of pitcher whom he has rarely if ever encountered, namely the command-and-control pitchers who can succeed with breaking stuff and who mix in right-on-right changeups. There’s value to having seen those sorts of pitchers before encountering them in the majors.

– Because of his performance and his lineup position, he’s going to start seeing the best late-innings right-handed pitchers in the International League, pitchers with good breaking balls that generate high strikeout rates at the minor league level. The Sox view the ability to command the strike zone with solid at-bats against such pitchers as an important component of development for a future middle-of-the-order hitter.

– The pitch mixes are different in Triple-A. Exposure to cutters and to pitchers who mix four pitches happens in Triple-A, and almost never before.

Middlebrooks has outperformed any expectations for his start to the 2012 season. He is extremely close to big league ready. Indeed, if Youkilis were injured, the Sox would almost surely call up Middlebrooks and slot him in as their everyday third baseman.

That said, in a world where Youkilis is healthy, the Sox are loathe to dismiss four great years on the basis of less than four bad weeks. Meanwhile, as excited as they are by the strides shown by Middlebrooks, they do not view his minor league development as being concluded. There does come a time when players can get stale by staying in the minors. Middlebrooks isn’t there yet. To the contrary, he continues to show an ability to learn and grow while in Triple-A, and so there he will remain for the time being.

TRIPLE-A PAWTUCKET RED SOX: 8-6 LOSS VS. SCRANTON WILKES-BARRE (YANKEES)

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– For the first time in his minor league rehab assignment, left-hander Rich Hill worked in back-to-back games. After he pitched a scoreless inning (one hit, one walk, one strikeout) on Tuesday, Hill returned to the mound on Wednesday and struck out two of the three batters he faced in a perfect inning of work, requiring just 13 pitches (10 strikes).

In three minor league stops during his rehab assignment, Hill has pitched nine innings in eight games, striking out 18 and walking just two while permitting two runs. Manager Bobby Valentine told reporters in Minnesota that he believes Hill is “close” to major league ready, and Hill had a similar assessment in talking to Tim Britton of the Providence Journal:

“There’s not too much else to work on. … Whether or not the elbow is healthy — that’s not the issue. The repeatability of the mechanics has been good. Being able to bounce back the day after, ever since the beginning of the rehab process, has been excellent. The next day I feel like I didn’t even pitch the day before.

“I feel ready.”

Andrew Miller also worked a scoreless inning on his minor league rehab assignment. He didn’t give up a run or a hit, but he walked one batter, hit another and threw a wild pitch before striking out a batter to strand runners at second and third. Of his 22 pitches, 10 were strikes.

– While Middlebrooks is rightly getting the lion’s share of attention, Mauro Gomez has posted numbers that are nearly as absurd. He went 2-for-5 and launched a homer (his seventh), and the 27-year-old first baseman is now hitting .347 with a .398 OBP, .720 slugging mark and 1.118 OPS.

DOUBLE-A PORTLAND SEA DOGS: 7-3 WIN AT NEW BRITAIN (GIANTS)

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– Outfielder Juan Carlos Linares played for the first time since suffering a groin injury on Friday, going 1-for-5 with a pair of runs batted in. He’s hitting .357/.446/.571/1.018 in 16 games this year.

– Outfielder Ronald Bermudez went 2-for-5, continuing a terrific start to the season by the 23-year-old, who is hitting .382 with a .988 OPS. In 34 plate appearances, however, he has yet to walk (though it’s almost as noteworthy that he’s struck out just twice). In seven minor league seasons, he is a .271/.331/.396/.727 hitter.

– Outfielder Bryce Brentz went 1-for-4 with a double, his first extra-base hit in eight games. On the year, he has four extra-base knocks (two doubles, a triple and a homer).

HIGH-A SALEM RED SOX: 4-1 WIN VS. WILMINGTON (ROYALS)

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– In one of the more potentially significant outings of the year by a Sox pitcher, left-hander Drake Britton dominated, allowing one hit and walking two while striking out seven in five shutout innings. Britton entered the game with a 13.87 ERA, with just six strikeouts (one fewer than he had on Wednesday) in 12 1/3 innings. Dating to last year, it was Britton’s best start ever with Salem; he had never before had a shutout outing of more than two innings. It was Britton’s first win since last May 7. Prior to the outing, he was 1-15 in Salem.

The last time that Britton had an outing that dominant was when he had a huge year in Greenville in 2010. On Sept. 2 that year, he tossed five shutout innings while punching out 10. According to the Roanoke Times, the left-hander has been watching video of that 2010 season with Salem pitching coach Kevin Walker in an effort to boost his confidence.

– Catcher Christian Vazquez went 2-for-4, and in his last 10 games, he’s hitting .351/.395/.432/.828. The power that he showed last year in Greenville (18 homers, 48 extra-base hits in 105 games) has yet to play, as he has three extra-base hits (all doubles) to date, but the 21-year-old is still amidst a recent run of consistent performances at the plate.

Jackie Bradley Jr. notched his first triple during yet another multi-hit game, this one a 2-for-4 performance to improve his numbers to .328/.449/.448/.897.

SINGLE-A GREENVILLE DRIVE: 9-4 WIN AT DELMARVA (ORIOLES)

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– Left-hander Henry Owens continued to strike out batters in bulk, punching out seven in 3 2/3 innings while yielding two runs on five hits (all singles) and three walks. For the year, the No. 36 overall pick has 29 strikeouts in 14 1/3 innings, though he’s also walked 11 and opponents are hitting .333 against him.

Garin Cecchini went 2-for-4 with a walk and his ninth steal of the year. After starting slowly (3-for-27), he is hitting .368/.455/.421/.876 with six walks, eight strikeouts and seven steals in his last 10 games.

David Renfroe snapped out of a 1-for-19 funk by going 3-for-5 with a homer. He now has four homers in 15 games, halfway to his total of eight in 107 contests last year in Greenville.

Read More: andrew miller, drake britton, garin cecchini, henry owens
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