It is a time of painful uncertainty in the career of Will Middlebrooks.
Undoubtedly, the Red Sox' decision to sign shortstop Stephen Drew has implications for the third baseman. Xander Bogaerts will relocate to the position that had been Middlebrooks' to start the year. That leaves the third-year big leaguer with an ill-defined role -- when he returns.
Middlebrooks understands this. And yet, he also understands that he's in no position to lament his fate. At a time when he still can't bend his right index finger, making it difficult to hold the bat and impossible to throw, when GM Ben Cherington said that he is weeks rather than days away from playing, Middlebrooks is in no position to feel dissatisfaction with a move that makes his team better.
"Team had to do what it had to do. I understand that. It's about us. It's not about Will," said Middlebrooks. "I'm hurt. They had to fill that spot. That was the best option. [Drew is] a damn good player and an even better teammate. I haven't wanted to talk about it. A lot of people have wanted to talk about it. I really don't have much to say other than, I'm happy to see him here. He's a good teammate. He's a good player. He's going to help us win.
"[Drew] being here ... doesn't affect me right now. Me being hurt affects me. I can't worry about [what Drew's addition means for his job] right now," Middlebrooks added. "He's a good teammate and he's a good player, and that's what we need right now. He helped us win a lot of games last year. He's one of the best defensive shortstops there is. And he's a big part of this team. I love him as a teammate. There's not one thing I could say bad about him."
Middlebrooks' disappointment right now does not relate to the Drew deal. It derives from the fact that he can't play, and that he has rarely been healthy enough over the last 21 months -- starting with a stray Esmil Rogers fastball that smashed his wrist and truncated a wildly promising rookie year ("I will never forget that one; that was when things kind of went downhill," he said) -- to remain in the lineup with any kind of consistency.
A broken wrist. Torn rib cartilage. A lower back strain. A calf strain. A finger that got smoked by a line drive.
This is the succession of events around which Middlebrooks is struggling to wrap his head while sidelined, while wondering when he might reach a point where he can stay on the field long enough to show what kind of player he is and can be.
"It sucks. My job is to play baseball and I can't do it, and I haven't been able to do it very much the last couple of years. It's tough," said Middlebrooks. "I control my own destiny. Nobody else. I've been hurt. I've had to play through a lot of stuff. I feel like I can count the days I've been healthy the last two years. I haven't shown the player I am. That's frustrating.
"I came back from Triple-A last year, I was healthy. That's the player I am when I'm healthy," Middlebrooks said, alluding to a season-ending 41-game stretch last year in which he hit .276 with a .329 OBP, .476 slugging mark and eight homers. "I know the player I am. I know I'm a good player. I know I'm an impact player on this team offensively and defensively and in the clubhouse. I've had some bad breaks. Got to grind it out and just deal with it.
"Me sitting here and whining about it, it's not going to get me anywhere," he added. "It's tough to even talk about. I just want to play ball. I want to compete and help us win. And I feel like even when I've been out there, I haven't been in a position really to help us win."
Of course, had Middlebrooks been performing in a fashion that more closely resembled 2012 -- when, as a 23-year-old, he hit .288 with a .325 OBP, .509 slugging mark and 15 homers in 75 games -- as opposed to the .197/.305/.324 line he posted this year, it's fair to wonder whether the Red Sox might have pursued an option other than Drew in Middlebrooks' absence, someone who might have fit the profile of a placeholder rather than potentially a displacement.
The third baseman understands the impact that his lack of production had on the team. And while some of his difficulty this year may relate to the stop-and-start nature of a season in which he landed on the DL in the first week, some of his struggles related to approach and focus.
"I'm not making excuses, but it's hard to go out and fight your body and everything else that's going on. All I know is when I'm healthy, I can contribute and I can produce," said Middlebrooks. "I'm not expecting to be 100 percent, but 75 would be nice -- 80. I can compete with that. I have enough ability, I can compete with that. Nobody's going to be 100 percent.
"Was I happy? No, of course not. I felt like there were times of games -- two or three times -- [a game-tying ninth-inning hit against the Twins, a game in which he had a key late-inning double against the Rays] -- you know what, I had to buckle down, I had to get the job done, and I did. But I need to take that to every at-bat," said Middlebrooks. "It's hard to be like that. Not saying I'm not focused, but when the game is on the line, it's, you know what? This is my chance to help us. You should take that to every at-bat, I guess. I take focus to every at-bat, but when it's bottom of the eighth, bottom of the ninth -- whatever it may be -- you've got guys on and you're down one or two or whatever, that's important to me. You need big hits. You need big hits in those kinds of situations. There's plenty of times, too, where I could have started better -- gotten on base, walked, base hit -- and didn't."
That reality contributes to the great unknown of what awaits Middlebrooks whenever he does return to the field. The likelihood appears to be that -- barring an injury to Bogaerts or Drew -- there won't be a starting role immediately available. Will there be a part-time role in the big leagues that sees him get regular playing time against lefties? A stint in Pawtucket beyond the typical rehab assignment?
Those questions are pointless for Middlebrooks to try to answer right now. They lie well beyond his control. For the 25-year-old, he has to get healthy. That need, rather than the roster structure and his role within it, has been the focus of Middlebrooks' conversations with team officials since Drew was signed.
"We haven't sat down and really talked about this situation," said Middlebrooks. "My goal right now is to be healthy and then we can worry about that."
After the Drew deal, Cherington spoke of Middlebrooks' rare potential, about the potential impact he can make.
"The way we see it, if Stephen Drew, Xander Bogaerts, Will Middlebrooks are all healthy and playing up to their capability, then we've got pretty good options on the left side of the infield. It makes us a better team," said Cherington. "That would be the optimal scenario. But we've got to get Will healthy first. We know that when he's healthy and doing the things he's capable of, there aren't many third basemen in the big leagues who can do what he does."
That is a view that Middlebrooks both appreciates and shares -- and that he is eager, bordering on desperate, to prove right. He recognizes that he is at the point where it will no longer do to speak of his potential. He has to be healthy enough to play, and when he does so, he has to perform.
"When I'm healthy, I know what I am. I know what I can do. The things I've learned over the past two years, I haven't been able to show what I've learned. I haven't been able to go on the field and be what I've become. I haven't been able to do that," said Middlebrooks. "Time to [expletive] or get off the pot. I've got to get healthy, get out there and show the player I am."