FORT MYERS, Fla. -- In the middle of a challenging 2013 season, Will Middlebrooks suggested that he needed to find an edge. And now?
"I've found it," he said Monday.
Life seems different this spring than it did a year ago. Then, anointed a middle-of-the-order fixture in the Red Sox lineup for years to come, he exuded self-assurance. The biggest questions surrounding him were whether he'd hit fifth or sixth in the lineup, and how big of an impact he might make in 2013, coming off of a 2012 debut in which he hit .288 with a .325 OBP, a .509 slugging mark and 15 homers in just 75 games.
That's not how the year played out. Though there were periods when Middlebrooks made important contributions to the Sox (a three-homer game in April, a game-winning ninth-inning hit against Fernando Rodney and the Rays in May, a strong stretch in August and September as the Sox pulled away in the division), the back of his baseball card attests to significant physical and performance struggles.
Though he slammed 17 homers in just 94 games, he hit .227 with a .271 OBP and .425 slugging mark. He lost his job as the Sox' everyday third baseman not once but twice, first to Jose Iglesias in June following a stint on the DL, then again to Xander Bogaerts in the postseason. His efforts to play through both pain in his lower back and a cartilage tear of his rib played into his struggles, but ultimately, while Middlebrooks could celebrate what his team accomplished, on a personal level the year was a disappointing one.
"It's not fun to be told you're not good enough. It's not fun to be sent down. It's not fun to not do well. I love the game. I love the teammates. I love my coaches. The only thing I can do is better myself to help them, help us," said Middlebrooks. "We won the World Series. That's awesome. I'm about this team. But could I have helped us more? Yeah. That's my plan. My plan going forward is to win another World Series. I feel like I'm going to be a big part of that. I just have to get my [stuff] together and be ready to go."
In contrast to a year ago, when his standing in the organization seemed clear, defined and secure for the long haul (witness the speculation about Middlebrooks as a candidate for a long-term extension early last year), things now are less clear for the 25-year-old. As the roster is currently constructed, he's the Opening Day third baseman. However, the question hovers of whether the Sox might re-sign Stephen Drew (which likely would push Middlebrooks out of an everyday role). Moreover, the presence of highly regarded prospect Garin Cecchini (also a third baseman) raises some longer-term questions about Middlebrooks' role. Meanwhile, public dialogue about his offseason focused as much on his relationship with NESN reporter Jenny Dell as his role on the field.
All of those questions sharpened the edge that the third baseman sought last summer. There may be no more powerful motivator than adversity. Consider Middlebrooks motivated.
"I like it. It creates a competition not only with other people but with myself. Any time you're pushed or you get your face pushed down in the dirt a few times, you're probably going to work harder to where you were and where you want to be," said Middlebrooks. "I like where I'm at. I like the place I'm at mentally, physically, emotionally, everything. I like it.
"I know my place: third baseman. No different [than last spring]. I come in to work, come in to get better every day, work with [third base coach and infield instructor Brian Butterfield] and keep getting better. I'm not worried about anything that has to do with anyone else. Just going to come in, get my work in. I think if I work hard, stay consistent with my work habits, good things will happen."
Middlebrooks remained in Boston this offseason to follow a rigorous winter strength and conditioning program with Red Sox strength consultant Mike Boyle that left him noticeably thicker this spring (he added about 12 pounds of muscle), something he hopes will better position him to endure the demands of the season. In concert with that physical training, he also spent the offseason processing the gamut of what the 2013 season represented.
"It's not that I took it for granted, and it's not that I didn't play hard -- I played hard every day," said Middlebrooks. "It was just a combination of, when you're down, you're not doing well, you're hurt, you're trying to play through things, things aren't going your way. Just, I rode the roller coaster. I got down, as most people will. It was a tough year, but my teammates stayed beside me. They helped me. When I'm getting calls and texts checking on me when I'm down in Pawtucket, that feels good. That feels good to know they're thinking about me, they want me back. It pushed me through a tough time."
Of course, that tough time wasn't atypical. Players often struggle in the formative stages of their careers -- hence the prevalence of the notion of the sophomore slump. Moreover, as a 24-year-old, Middlebrooks was at an age and career stage when players often are putting the finishing touches on their player development in the minors rather than enduring their struggles under the spotlight.
His struggles were magnified by his successes of the previous years -- both a 2011 season when Middlebrooks emerged as the unquestioned top prospect in the Red Sox system (ahead of Bogaerts), and in a 2012 campaign when he appeared to be a future team fixture. But it's not uncommon for players to endure a step backward at some point in their big league careers.
That is the longer view that the Red Sox take with a player whose right-handed power represents a rare commodity and suggests a considerable major league ceiling.
“I think in talking with Will at length, whether it was throughout the course of the year or having sit-down conversations with him in the offseason, he learned a lot last year. He was challenged in a few ways. I think that through those experiences, he’s understanding of what his needs and what his strengths are more readily, and that’s part of the maturation process of a player,” said manager John Farrell. “The one thing he hasn’t lost is his raw abilities and his talent. I feel like what he was two years ago is maybe more representative than what he was a year ago, and we feel like there’s a very good major league player in there.”
Still, Middlebrooks refuses to accept that 2013 was merely a normal part of the growing pains of player development.
"Who says it's supposed to happen? Just because it happens to some people doesn't mean it should happen," said Middlebrooks. "Could I have prevented it? I think so. Did I learn from it? I took more out of last year than I took out of my first year. I hit, what, 70 points lower?
"I learned how to take care of my body more, learned what you can play through and what you can't play through, not only for individual purposes but for your team. Being a tough guy and saying you're fine sometimes when you're not may end up hurting your team. It's just something I learned. It's something that comes with age and maturity, and learning from this guy [points to Dustin Pedroia's locker] and that guy [to Jonny Gomes], everybody in here, the guys who have been around. You live and you learn. It's a trial-and-error thing, and unfortunately in the big leagues, it's very magnified when it's an error. It's fine. Like I said, I learned from it and I'm ready to move on."
Indeed, that is where Middlebrooks' focus now lies. Rather than dwelling on his struggles of a year ago, he instead looks forward to shifting his focus to what lies ahead. In the same fashion that his teammates have espoused the mantra of turning the page on the previous year ("We won a World Series and no one's even talking about it," said Middlebrooks), so, too, does the still-young third baseman want to concentrate on the accomplishments that lie ahead rather than the mix of achievement and challenge that has characterized his first two years.
Still, as much as he looks forward, he remains driven by the events of a year ago. And for both Middlebrooks and the Sox, that catalyst offers considerable promise.