NEW YORK -- Who's on third?
The Red Sox have moved aggressively in recent weeks to rebuild a lineup that has ranked for much of the year at or near the bottom of the American League. The initial results suggest marginal progress.
The Sox entered the trade deadline averaging 3.81 runs per game, worst in the American League. Since Aug. 1, with the additions of Yoenis Cespedes and Allen Craig along with the recent emergence of Mookie Betts in place of Jackie Bradley Jr., the team has averaged a middle-of-the-pack 4.1 runs per game. With Rusney Castillo on the horizon, and the expectation that Xander Bogaerts and perhaps Craig have a chance to make noteworthy steps forward in 2015, there is a general sense that the lineup can emerge by next season as one of the better ones in the American League.
"We’ve integrated a number of players through trades that are playing key roles for us," Sox manager John Farrell noted. "Obviously [there is] Cespy and what he’s done in the middle of the order. When you see the likes of what Mookie has done, and really when you see what Bogey can do, it’s not only exciting, but this is a team that’s now, got a lineup that’s formidable, it’s much deeper than it’s been."
Yet the lineup puzzle remains incomplete (particularly given the incomplete evaluations to date on Craig -- whose 2014 season seems likely to be a lost one -- and Castillo), with the biggest question mark looming over the hot corner.
The Sox entered 2014 thinking that third base represented an area where improved production was virtually inevitable. The team had combined in its World Series run to deliver a middling line of a .242 average, .288 OBP and .395 slugging mark. Whether the team ended up with Will Middlebrooks or Xander Bogaerts at third, a considerable step forward in performance was anticipated.
The opposite has occurred. The Sox have gone from middle-of-the-pack offensive numbers in 2013 to the worst line of any American League team at the position in 2014. The team's third basemen -- primarily Middlebrooks and Bogaerts, with Brock Holt also spending some time at the position -- are hitting .207 (worst in the AL) with a .267 OBP (14th in the American League) and .297 slugging mark (worst in the AL).
As the season winds down, Middlebrooks seems immersed in struggle. He went 0-for-5 with four strikeouts, all looking at sliders, on Tuesday night before sitting on Wednesday. He's 0-for-13 in his last three games, dropping his offensive marks for the season to .183 with a .251 OBP and .268 slugging mark. Since the start of 2013, he's now hitting .213/.264/.375.
There have been 291 players with at least 500 plate appearances since the start of last season. Middlebrooks' .264 OBP ranks 289th, his .213 average 281st. He's striking out in a career-worst 29.6 percent of plate appearances this year, looking at times (particularly Tuesday) like a hitter who is guessing about what's coming and who is often guessing wrong.
"I think there's been times when he's trying to think along with a given pitcher and anticipating a certain kind of pitch and a certain location and it's not quite there," said Farrell. "At times, that might be the reason why he's not pulled the trigger on some pitches. We came off a series in Tampa where I thought he swung the bat very well with some authority back through the middle of the field, certainly to right-center field as well. But the early work, the work routine, that all remains consistent. It's a matter of doing it in-game."
Until he does so, however, the team can't commit to him as an everyday player. And so, there is an offseason fork in the road.
Both Farrell and GM Ben Cherington said on Wednesday that the team would like Middlebrooks to play winter ball. Middlebrooks, according to an industry source, has reservations about doing so. Given how he's struggled to stay on the field over the last two years, with a pair of DL stints in each season, Middlebrooks' foremost priority is ensuring that he's in the best physical shape to succeed entering next year.
Both the team and the player want him to be in a position to improve upon what's happened over the last two years, but there seems to be some uncertainty about the best way to accomplish the goal. The conversation remains ongoing, but its outcome could prove pivotal.
The evidence of struggle is sufficiently significant that the team can't simply take a leap of faith and assume that, if slotted in as the everyday third baseman, a healthy Middlebrooks would perform at his tantalizing 2012 levels. The Sox need to see a demonstration of such a player on a sustained basis, and time is running out for him to do so during the 2014 regular season.
That's where the winter ball conversation becomes central in the team's eyes.
"When he came into the big league level, he took it by storm in that first 250, 300 plate appearances. In 2012 when we had him, he was one of the best players if not the best player on the team. We have to get back to that player, the guy that goes out there and has the ability to impact the baseball on a nightly basis," Red Sox assistant GM Mike Hazen explained on WEEI's Dennis & Callahan show. "We knew when this guy came up through the minor leagues, the way he played, he’s made really good strides at third base, he always impacted the baseball. We need to get back to the player that had the ability to impact a baseball night in and night out.
"Winter ball, in a lot of cases for guys that haven’t had a great season due to performance or injury -- and I think in his case it’s probably a little bit of both here -- he’s got to make up some of those at-bats. We see that as a good opportunity to turn the lights off, go down when nobody’s watching, pick up another hundred at-bats against experienced guys that are out there flipping breaking balls at you, and figure that stuff out, coming back into spring training hopefully with a lot of confidence.
"Now, hopefully he builds up some of that confidence in September as we move forward. But that’s another vehicle that we have for those younger guys, and I hope he’d be open to it."
The winter ball conversation underscores the Sox' unsettled picture at third base for 2015.
Middlebrooks hasn't been able to earn an everyday job for next year to this point. The team does have an in-house option with Holt, though his magic carpet ride has been running out of steam, his numbers eroding steadily in the second half in which he's hitting .219/.282/.253.
Perhaps not too far down the road in 2015, Garin Cecchini could represent an option for the position. The 23-year-old, who had a walkoff single in the PawSox' playoff win over Syracuse on Wednesday, struggled to a .263/.341/.371 line this year in Pawtucket, though from Aug. 1 through the end of the year, he hit .333/.413/.500, offering a foundation to move forward. Still, barring a trade, he's expected to open next year back in Triple-A to build on his season-ending strides.
For now, Cherington said that even though he wouldn't rule it out completely, he doesn't expect to consider Betts for third base, with the team instead remaining focused on letting the 21-year-old cement his considerable strides as an outfielder.
The team could certainly employ a platoon with Middlebrooks and Holt, but given the state of the offense this year, the Sox aren't in a position to make any cavalier assumptions about those players' ability to produce next year.
There are alternatives. While there's a scarcity of elite positional free agents this coming winter, the one spot on the field that seems to have a relative wealth of options is the left side of the infield.
Hanley Ramirez (hitting .264/.352/.438 in 108 games), Pablo Sandoval (.288/.331/.434), Aramis Ramirez (.303/.348/.457 -- though with a 2015 mutual option at $14 million), Jed Lowrie (.239/.316/.352) and Chase Headley (.238/.316/.361 this year, including .256/.359/.376 in 37 games since being traded to the Yankees) all could be on the free agent market this winter.
That means that the Red Sox have options, and they'll explore all of them, for an obvious reason. In the aftermath of this year's offensive collapse, jobs won't be handed out based on potential. They'll have to be earned.
Is there time for Middlebrooks to do so? To be determined.
His potential remains considerable. The Sox' view of the 25-year-old as a potential middle-of-the-order masher is shared by other teams, with multiple clubs signaling a hope of buying low on a player whose power grades as a rare asset in the current big league climate.
But time is running out for Middlebrooks to make his case for 2015, and so, for all the reconstruction of the lineup that has occurred, the blueprint for next season remains incomplete.