After an October to remember, it’s been a pretty quiet offseason for the Red Sox. Ben Cherington has made a few minor upgrades to help add depth to the team’s roster, but otherwise, the Red Sox appear content to move into 2014 with much the same core in place.
From one perspective, this makes perfect sense: the Red Sox possess a deep and talented roster and also enjoy the luxury of having a number of near-ready prospects who are simply waiting for their chance down in Pawtucket.
From another perspective, however, Boston is heading into the season with multiple question marks, most notably at third base, where the team struggled to find adequate production in 2013. With Stephen Drew still stuck in free-agent limbo and Xander Bogaerts more than ready to grab the reins at shortstop, Will Middlebrooks is the only viable third base candidate on the roster.
This might come as a surprise to some considering Middlebrooks’ struggles last season, and the .250/.300/.392 line that Red Sox third baseman put up as a whole (the club’s worst on-base percentage at any position in 2013). In some sense, that Cherington hasn’t felt compelled to find an upgrade over Middlebrooks speaks volumes about how the organization still views his potential. Indeed, Red Sox fans should be excited that the team’s brass feels comfortable enough to entrust youngsters like Middlebrooks, Bogaerts, and Bradley Jr. with starting gigs.
Regardless of his current standing, however, 2014 will likely be Middlebrooks’ last chance to grab and hold down a starting spot in Boston. Third base prospect Garin Cecchini is getting closer and closer to the majors after impressing in Double-A Portland last season, and at some point soon, the Red Sox will have to decide which player is better served to man the hot corner into the future. If Middlebrooks continues to scuffle against major league pitching, Cecchini might ultimately be the best choice for the job.
Middlebrooks did appear to make some worthwhile adjustments after returning from a midseason trip to the minors last year. The 25-year-old batted .276/.329/.476 with eight home runs from August 10th onward, walking more times during that stretch (11) than he had in the season’s first three months (nine). At times, though, Middlebrooks strikes out at an alarming rate and also has serious issues against right-handed pitching (he has hit .239/.273/.443 against righties over his career).
These issues are legitimate enough that Mike Carp - who hasn’t played third base in nearly a decade – is taking reps at the hot corner this spring. While the chances are slim that Carp spends a significant amount of time at third base once the season begins, there is little denying he would form an intriguing platoon partner with Middlebrooks. The 27-year-old Carp batted .300/.367/.537 in 215 plate appearances against right-handers last year and also belted eight home runs. Given his performance, the Red Sox are likely looking for any number of ways to get the left-handed slugger in the lineup more often.
Despite Carp’s practice plans this spring, the future Red Sox third baseman, in all likelihood, will be either Middlebrooks or Cecchini. By some measure, Cecchini could be closer to a major-league ready product than one might think. The ZIPS projection system over at FanGraphs.com projects Cecchini to bat .266/.342/.374 if given the full-time opportunity at third base in 2014. Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA system is a little less optimistic, foreseeing a .253/.338/.352 performance from Cecchini.
It is worth pointing out, moreover, that both systems project Cecchini to already have better on-base ability than Middlebrooks, which indicates the 22-year-old could be ready sooner rather than later. In any event, the Red Sox will allow Cecchini to gain more experience in the upper levels of the minors, while seeing just what they have in Middlebrooks for the first half of 2014.
By the end of the season, though, which player is set up to be the team’s third baseman of the future is anybody’s guess. Perhaps Middlebrooks finally finds stability in the majors and hits 30 home runs. Or perhaps Cecchini excels in the minors and is starting at third by September. The ultimate outcome is unclear this spring, but the 2014 season should provide an answer as to just who will play third base for the Red Sox in the future.