Middlebrooks has paid his dues in Single-A ball-having made stops at Lowell (short-season A), Greenville (Low-A), and Salem (High-A)-and is likely slated for Double-A Portland this year. Middlebrooks is heralded for his defensive skills at third base, but those skills have not always come naturally. In high school, he played shortstop, but the Red Sox converted him to a third baseman during his first full year of professional baseball.
"It was tough-there are a lot of different angles, a lot less time for reaction-it's just something you have to get used to, but I'm fully adapted to it now," Middlebrooks said on his transition to third base. "Mentally, defense-as far as an infielder-it's all the same: just being ready and reading bounces. At first base, and third base, it's a lot of reaction: you get a lot of hard hit balls; you're playing in a lot. Shortstops are always playing back [and have] a lot of time to react to balls."
Middlebrooks spent his 2010 season in High-A Salem, posting his best numbers to date. He batted .276, with 120 hits, and 70 RBI. The jump from Low-A Greenville to High-A Salem is one of the toughest jumps in the minor leagues-perhaps second only to the jump from High-A to Double-A Portland, which Middlebrooks anticipates.
Middlebrooks attributes his biggest challenge last year to the advanced pitching: "I feel like the pitching was a lot better in the jump from Low-A to High-A... [The pitchers are] able to throw all their pitches for strikes: the higher you get, everyone is more consistent."
The more-sophisticated pitchers did not daunt Middlebrooks, for in the minor leagues, as the pitchers adapt, the hitters also adapt. "[It was just a matter of] getting comfortable at the plate...remaining consistent in my approach, and knowing what pitches I can hit and [which] counts, and just watching film and studying the game."
It did not take Middlebrooks long to adjust. In fact, he posted his best numbers in April, in which he batted .362. Despite his solid year in Salem, Middlebrooks recognizes that he still has room to improve.
Asked if he had to pitch against himself, which weaknesses would he take advantage of, Middlebrooks said, "I know my positives: I could hit a fastball really well, so I would attack myself with off-speed [pitches] early in the count because I am aggressive early in the count: I look for fastballs." What is the biggest thing Middlebrooks is working on this spring? "Just staying consistent with my approach offensively and my footwork defensively: just getting good jumps on balls at third base."
As one of the emerging prospects whose potential is just beginning to materialize, Middlebrooks has had the opportunity to appear in some big-league spring training games. Middlebrooks has taken advantage of these opportunities:
"I'm really just a sponge when I'm up there. I just want to soak in everything, and see how they go about their business because ultimately, that's where we want to be, so [I] just follow them, see what they're doing, see how they do their cage work, their defensive work before the game in [batting practice,] and just try to change my game a little bit to how they do it."
In his effort to take everything in, Middlebrooks has learned a lot so far, the biggest thing being effort level. "You kind of have to pace yourself. With [the major league guys,] it's 162 games. You can't be 100% everyday. If you have 90% to give, that's what you give. If you push that, you might get hurt or you could be out for a few months."
Middlebrooks has made a lot of progress in his first three seasons of professional baseball, and he will only continue to advance this season in Double-A Portland. He is certainly a prospect to keep your eye on during the 2011 season.