Red Sox Third Base Outlook: Will Middlebrooks’ Fate Hangs In Balance

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Will MiddlebrooksDid the Boston Red Sox learn their lesson?

The Red Sox relied heavily on young players this season. Boston’s up-and-comers endured growing pains and the club wasn’t equipped to handle such inconsistent production, thus paving the way for a 71-91 record.

The left side of the infield, in particular, became an area of weakness for the Red Sox amid their offensive struggles. Shortstop Xander Bogaerts rebounded down the stretch, but third base is an area of uncertainty as Boston prepares for an action-packed offseason.

2014 at a glance
The Red Sox gambled by going with Bogaerts at shortstop and Will Middlebrooks at third base to begin the season. Both players have high ceilings, but Bogaerts was very inexperienced and Middlebrooks was coming off a disappointing 2013 plagued by injuries. The results were disastrous, to the point where the Red Sox re-signed Stephen Drew in May.

Middlebrooks played only 63 major league games in 2014, hitting .191 with two homers, 19 RBIs, 70 strikeouts and a .522 OPS. It was another huge letdown, as the 26-year-old looked like a surefire stud back in 2012.

Bogaerts played 44 games at third base upon Drew’s arrival. He returned to shortstop when the Red Sox traded Drew before the July 31 non-waiver deadline. In hindsight, signing Drew only messed with the rookie’s head. Bogaerts struggled for much of the year.

Brock Holt was a bright spot, though labeling him a third baseman would be inaccurate. Holt played all over the diamond. It just so happens he made 39 appearances at the hot corner.

Simply put, the Red Sox’s third base production was terrible. The Red Sox’s -0.5 WAR (according to Baseball-Reference.com) at the position ranked 27th in the majors. Boston’s third basemen combined to hit an MLB-worst .211 with an American League-worst .580 OPS. The Red Sox’s 167 strikeouts at third base were the most in the AL.

Whose job to lose?
Right now, it’s probably Middlebrooks. But committing solely to him would be a monstrous gamble.

Holt was hands-down the most productive player at third base in 2014, but the Red Sox shouldn’t pigeonhole him into one position in the starting lineup. He’s much more valuable serving as Boston’s human Swiss Army knife, like he did for much of 2014.

Garin Cecchini is another internal option. He showed promise in limited major league action, hitting .258 (8-for-31) with an .813 OPS in 11 games. But the 23-year-old needs more seasoning, particularly defensively, and relying on him out of the gate also would require a leap of faith.

Notable prospects
Garin Cecchini, 23
Cecchini had an underwhelming year at Triple-A after being an on-base machine the three seasons prior. The former fourth-round pick hit .263 with seven homers, 57 RBIs and a .341 on-base percentage in 114 games with Pawtucket while also committing 16 errors.

Though Cecchini finished strong, he’ll probably return to Pawtucket to begin 2015. Cecchini also might return to left field — he played 26 minor league games there in 2014 — if Middlebrooks starts the season at Triple-A.

Rafael Devers, 17
Devers won’t sniff Fenway Park for a while. But when he arrives, he could become a star.

Devers will begin 2015 at Single-A — likely Greenville — and look to build on an impressive 2014. He tore up the Dominican Summer League and Gulf Coast League in his first year in the organization after signing as an international free agent.

Devers currently is ranked the Red Sox’s No. 4 prospect, according to SoxProspects.com.

Top three free agents
Pablo Sandoval
Sandoval earned two All-Star selections in seven seasons with the San Francisco Giants. He has pop and a track record of elevating his game in October. Sandoval, a switch-hitter with better splits against right-handers, could be an appealing option for the Red Sox, though competition for the 28-year-old’s services figures to be fierce.

Chase Headley
Headley’s career took a turn for the worse following a breakout 2012 in which he rode 31 homers, 115 RBIs and Gold Glove defense to a fifth-place finish in National League MVP voting. But the 30-year-old’s performance with the New York Yankees in the second half of this season was encouraging. He’s also a left-handed hitter, something the Red Sox desperately need.

Jed Lowrie
Lowrie played primarily shortstop this season. He also has experience at third base. Lowrie dropped off considerably amid some injury battles, but the 30-year-old switch-hitter has been a productive player in recent years.

2015 prediction
The Red Sox will look outside the organization.

Middlebrooks and/or Cecchini could become viable major leaguers, but Boston is looking to contend in 2015. There’s simply too much risk involved with committing to either of those guys as the Opening Day third baseman. And Holt should continue to wear several hats for the Sox.

Sandoval is the best free-agent option. He’ll also be the most expensive. Headley is a good fit, though Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington surely will scour the trade market, too.

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Photo via Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports Images

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