NEW YORK -- The dynamic is a fascinating one.
In the short-term, there is some admitted uncertainty from the Red Sox about what they have on the left side of their infield, an area of instability this year.
The team couldn't be more thrilled with what Jose Iglesias has done, hitting .367 with a .417 OBP and .461 slugging mark in the equivalent of roughly a third of a season (52 games). Yet the performance represents such a drastic departure from his career norms that it's difficult to assume that it's sustainable. Over the just-concluded road trip, he hit .205 with a .273 OBP and no extra-base hits.
Will Middlebrooks is still searching to regain the approach that made him such a compelling rookie in 2012. In roughly a third of a season (53 games) in the big leagues, he hit .192/.228/.389. After going 1-for-4 with a homer on Sunday, Middlebrooks is now hitting .243/.282/.459 with five homers in 18 games since being sent down to Triple-A.
Xander Bogaerts is considered a near-lock for a future as a middle-of-the-order star. Still, he's just 29 games into his Triple-A career, hitting .260/.353/.462 with seven homers in that time. He feels ready for the big leagues, yet also understands that here is a likelihood that he will need at least a bit more of an apprenticeship in Pawtucket before receiving a big league summons.
"I'll be ready. Definitely. I'll be ready for that one," Bogaerts said of a potential call up prior to the All-Star Futures Game at CitiField on Sunday. "A little bit of time in Triple-A is not bad -- a little bit more. I'm not saying the whole year, but a little bit more is OK to really get settled in."
Yet even as gifted as Bogaerts is, there's no guarantee that he would make a seamless transition to the big leagues. Mike Trout had his lunch handed to him in his first cup of coffee in late 2011. Same with Jackie Bradley Jr. this year.
Meanwhile, Stephen Drew is nearing the start of a minor league rehab assignment later this week. The Sox consider him a stabilizing presence, someone whose career and 2013 performances suggest a player capable of above-average defense at short along with above-average offense against right-handed pitchers. As such, he's set to reclaim his role as an everyday shortstop. Still, he's been prone to streakiness this year, making him something other than a lock for production.
All of that explains why the Sox have been open to exploring the market for potential contributors on the left side of the infield to help for the rest of 2013. Yet even as the team conducts that search, there may be no team in baseball that is more flush with talent for the long haul at third and short.
Iglesias' offensive improvements this year make a compelling case that he can be an everyday shortstop, delivering enough at the plate to permit a team to benefit from his dazzling defensive wizardry. The team is confident that the same will be said -- perhaps soon -- once again about Middlebrooks at third base, who despite his struggles this year, still features potential as an above-average defensive third baseman as well as the kind of raw power that is rarely seen. He's 24, and still a very good prospect despite his performance this year.
Conversations with a handful of talent evaluators at the All-Star Futures Game in New York offered the unanimous opinion that he is a future middle-of-the-order bat. None had questions about his talent, or even about the likelihood (barring injury) that he will be a big league star. The only question was whether he ends up as a shortstop or third while delivering outrageous offense at the position.
"I don't really have questions," one AL talent evaluator said of Bogaerts' star potential. "It's just where he winds up defensively. I think it's probably third base, but I think he's going to be able to do everything -- hit with power, hit for average, hit in that three/four hole. I just think he'll be able to do everything."
"[Bogaerts] might win an MVP. He's an All-Star type. ... I think he can play [shortstop]," countered one NL talent evaluator. "He might not play there for many years, but until he gets big, unless you have a star at shortstop -- if you have Jose Reyes or whoever -- for the other 26 teams or whatever, he's a shortstop. If that kid hits 25 home runs, you won't be surprised. This kid's 20. He's going to hit 25 or 30. At that position, he's got plus-plus-plus power. He's a good hitter. He can defend. He's an offensive shortstop who can play in the real All-Star game."
And then, in Double-A, Garin Cecchini is making his own push. Like Bogaerts, he'll be added to the 40-man roster this winter to prevent him from being exposed to the Rule 5 draft. Cecchini is a different sort of player than Bogaerts and Middlebrooks, but nonetheless a wildly talented one. Between High-A Salem and Double-A Portland, Cecchini has been among the top performers in all of minor league baseball this year, hitting .353 with a .468 OBP between the two levels.
"Cecchini's just going to be a really good big league hitter. He might win a batting title. With the walks, he stays inside the ball, uses the whole field," said the NL evaluator. "Cecchini could be a five, six or seven. If he hits down in that order, he could be Bill Mueller."
That's four players, all with a good shot at being big league ready by 2014 (Cecchini's ETA being later in the year rather than at the outset, given that he just got to Double-A last month), all of whom play on the left side of the infield. So ... what to do?
"Good to have -- good problem," Bogaerts said prior to the Futures Game at CitiField, where he went 2-for-3 with a walk. "That's their job -- [GM Ben Cherington] and everyone else. Once you start thinking about those things, things can do downhill. You get too worried, feel pressure -- no, man. Just go out and play. That's all you can control."
Cecchini offered similar sentiments, even going so far as to note that the perceived logjam need not force the Sox to start sending players outside the organization. He noted his experience playing for Team USA's 18-and-under club in 2009, a loaded roster that featured the likes of Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, when Cecchini -- a high school shortstop -- ended up relocating to left field.
"Be an athlete. Go to other positions. Help the team win," Cecchini said. "That's what we did -- totally different situation -- one's the Boston Red Sox, the other is Team USA, but Team USA, we had seven shortstops. You can't play seven shortstops. Manny Machado was a shortstop, Sean Coyle was a third baseman, Harper was a center fielder, I was in left field. It's a good problem to have. It makes your team better.
"It's a really good thing to have not only on a player standpoint but on a Red Sox standpoint," Cecchini added of the loaded left side. "I'm competing with Bogaerts, who's an unbelievable player, Middlebrooks, Iglesias. These guys are guys that have been to this game, been to the big leagues for Iglesias and Middlebrooks. This is an awesome problem to have. All I want to do is win. I just want to win in the big leagues when I get to the big leagues. It's a good problem to have with the left side of the infield. That's all I can say."
And there are certainly scenarios in which the Red Sox could keep all four players long term. For instance, at some point down the road, the team could feature an alignment of Iglesias at short, Bogaerts at third, Middlebrooks at first and Cecchini in left (where he played for Team USA). Or Iglesias and Middlebrooks could handle the left side of the infield, with Cecchini and Bogaerts in the two outfield corners.
(For now, at least, while Cecchini has made considerable defensive strides as a pro to the point where some evaluators feel he can be an everyday third baseman, in a scenario where the Sox didn't trade any of the quartet of prospects, he's considered the most likely to have to move elsewhere in the field.
"I think Cecchini is probably going to have to go to the outfield -- if they keep everyone in place. For me, he's the guy who definitely is behind [the others] as far as the defensive side of it, but I tell you what -- he's got a great barrel," said the AL evaluator. "If that power comes, he's a third hitter. He's got plate coverage and barrel accuracy, [but] I do think he will move to a corner outfield spot.")
That said, there is the potential for surplus inventory, and the Sox are in an enviable position from which to deal one of those players -- any of whom would make an exceedingly valuable chip either this month or during the offseason. Bogaerts looks like a player capable of 25-30 homers who hits for average with strong OBPs. (His plate approach was the most mature of any player in the Futures Game on Sunday, when Bogaerts went 2-for-3 with a walk.) Middlebrooks still has 30-plus homer power, and he's still just 24. Iglesias is a game-changing defender whose hand-eye coordination can permit him to hit for average with enough improvement in his pitch recognition and approach to prevent him from becoming a lineup black hole. Cecchini -- who jumped on a pair of first-pitch fastballs in the Futures Game, driving one to the opposite field warning track in left-center for an out and pulling the other for an RBI double in the right-field corner -- could be an on-base machine, regardless of whether he starts hitting homers or becomes a doubles-producing force.
Bogaerts and Cecchini are correct that it is an enviable problem for the Red Sox to have. Long-term, the team is loaded with players who represent viable everyday shortstops and third basemen.
But even with four tremendous talents from Double-A to the majors, in the here-and-now of a 2013 season in which the Sox are trying to sustain their first-place ambitions, there are questions about what the Sox have for the remainder of this season. And so, the dynamic that the team faces is a fascinating one, a balance of short-term need (or, more accurately, uncertainty) and long-term possibility.