COMMENTARY | There is no doubt that the skeptics are back in Beantown. This is the second straight year that the Boston Red Sox are heading into a season with a wealth of doubt from the fan-base and media. While this may be nothing new to the old school fans of the team (remember the whole 86 years thing?) there are generations of other fans who have grown up with nothing but playoff expectations. The Red Sox could certainly make the postseason in 2013, but it would take a Herculean effort and some luck.
While much of the attitude and storylines surrounding the Red Sox remain negative, there are a few bright spots. One of the brightest is Will Middlebrooks. It will be a welcome sight when Middlebrooks is back in the lineup. The corner infielder was punishing American League pitching before breaking a bone in his right hand last August. He was hit by a pitch in Cleveland that prematurely ended his rookie season. Since then, Middlebrooks has been itching to get back to when he was producing like a veteran.
Middlebrooks finished 2012 with a .288 BA, 15 HRs, and 54 RBIs. He played so well that the Red Sox were comfortable enough trading away the very popular Kevin Youkilis. It was a move that revealed just how much confidence Boston's front office has in Middlebrooks. Especially considering it was a relatively small sample size at the time of the transaction.
It was an exciting first season for Middlebrooks, but he does have things to work on in 2013. First on the list is his fielding. Middlebrooks finished with nine errors in 72 games played at third base. It's not a shockingly bad number. However, Boston usually prides itself on solid defense. The Red Sox traded for defense replacements that aided them in winning a championship in 2004. And in 2007 Boston was the second best defense in the American League. Middlebrooks needs to improve, considering he was on pace for close to 20 errors last season. There's still optimism when it comes to his fielding. Last year was his first in the majors, so it's plausible to think Middlebrooks will improve this season. He could always be moved to first base in the future if the struggles continue.
While fielding needs improvement, it's a different story at the plate. It's hard to find issues that don't sound nitpicky. Middlebrooks struck out 70 times, which projects out to over 150 in a season. That would put him close to the top of the team in that department. However, he's going to be a power hitter so strikeouts are expected. It was also his first time facing major league pitching, and he should become more comfortable at the plate.
Middlebrooks could also stand to be a little more patient at the plate, something that will also come with more experience. It's very rare to find a young player who isn't overly aggressive. It's human nature to want to impress your peers and bosses right away. While it was noticeable early on, don't expect it to continue.
What about improving the numbers that were already solid in his first year? Middlebrooks will be expected to add to his HR total in 2013. Red Sox' statistician Bill James predicts 29 HRs for Middlebrooks in year two. James also expects Middlebrooks to improve his average at the plate. It's easy to expect considering who will surround Middlebrooks. He should also have adequate protection in the lineup with the return of David Ortiz and the addition of Mike Napoli. This will also create plenty of opportunities for Middlebrooks to drive runners in.
Middlebrooks has to be incredibly hungry. He was having a fine season before the wrist injury. It would be foolish to believe Middlebrooks is going to regress. It's going to be fun watching Middlebrooks prove last year wasn't a fluke.
Chris Sedenka is a Yahoo! Contributor in Sports covering the Boston Red Sox. You can listen to his daily radio show on 96.3FM in Portland, ME or at thebigjab.com. He is also the voice of the Maine Red Claws of the NBA D-League.
You can follow Chris on Twitter @ChrisSedenka.