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Red Sox retain high hopes for Middlebrooks

The SportsXchange

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- It ranks among the most puzzling questions facing the Boston Red Sox this season: Who exactly is Will Middlebrooks?

If Middlebrooks plays to the level of his promising rookie season, the Red Sox will have an All-Star-caliber third baseman. But if he struggles the way he did last year, well, the Sox will be looking for an alternative, and Middlebrooks knows it.

"I had an awful year," Middlebrooks said of a 2013 season in which he spent seven weeks in Triple-A and was benched during the World Series. "I learned a lot more last year than I did my first year when I hit .290. It's just part of it, part of growing as a player."

In 2012, success was almost immediate for Middlebrooks, who got called up in May to replace injured veteran Kevin Youkilis and never went back to the minors. He hit 15 homers, slugged .509 and posted an .835 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in 267 at-bats. He would have gained far more experience if not for a broken wrist that sidelined him for the season's final two months.

Middlebrooks was a bright spot in an otherwise dreary season for the Sox under manager Bobby Valentine, and when last season began, new skipper John Farrell had him penciled in as a middle-of-the-order power threat.

However, pitchers adjusted to Middlebrooks faster than he adjusted to them. Despite a three-homer game in Toronto early in April, Middlebrooks was batting .192 and had lost his grip on the third base job by mid-June, when he was sent to Triple-A Pawtucket.

After returning to the majors in August, Middlebrooks batted .276 and slugged .476 with eight homers and an .805 OPS in 145 at-bats. Then a miserable postseason slump prompted Farrell to bench Middlebrooks in favor of rookie Xander Bogaerts before Game 5 of the AL Championship Series against the Detroit Tigers. Middlebrooks barely played again en route to the Red Sox winning the World Series.

"I don't know if I accepted it," Middlebrooks said. "It sucks not to be able to help your team out especially if we're in the playoffs or in the World Series. No one wants to accept that."

Still, the Red Sox insist they haven't lost faith in Middlebrooks. They weren't aggressive in trying to re-sign Stephen Drew, leaving Bogaerts as the shortstop and Middlebrooks as the projected Opening Day third baseman. And Farrell continues to express confidence in Middlebrooks, even though the 25-year-old's defense has been shaky at times throughout spring training.

For Middlebrooks, it represents another chance to prove himself.

"I talked to Pedey (second baseman Dustin Pedroia), all these guys in here and they said, 'We've all been through it, we've all struggled,'" said Middlebrooks, who recently dealt with a hyperextended right middle finger that wasn't expected to keep him from being ready for the season. "At this level, it's going to happen at one point or another. It's a select few guys who haven't, those guys you see with a plaque in Cooperstown. Even those guys -- look at David (Ortiz), as great as he is, he's had months where he didn't do well. It's just part of the game. Those pitchers are out there for a reason. You just have to stay as consistent as you can."

NOTES, QUOTES

--OF Grady Sizemore continues to make a compelling case for being named the Red Sox's Opening Day center fielder, although a decision likely won't be rendered until the final days of spring training. The biggest issue: Can the Sox rely on him to play every day after he missed the past two seasons with various injuries, including microfracture surgery on both knees. Even Sizemore can't make any guarantees.

"I don't know. I don't have that answer," Sizemore said. "I think it's definitely a possibility. I don't know if they're going to roll me out there 25 out of 25. But let's just get through tomorrow before we start talking about the season."

Sizemore was holding up well this spring, exhibiting no signs of being limited and even flashing the skills that once made him the league's most dynamic center fielder. On March 17, for instance, he notched a double and two singles and made two spectacular catches. Sizemore is competing with rookie CF Jackie Bradley Jr., and with the Sox already slated to have a platoon in left field with Jonny Gomes and Daniel Nava, there isn't a place on the roster for both Sizemore and Bradley unless a trade is made.

"Our whole goal in this is to continue to build him and keep him on an incline, rather than overloading it so early that there's any kind of setback," manager John Farrell said. "The best thing I can say is that he's responding favorably to everything we've put him through."

--RHP Jake Peavy missed a few days earlier in spring training after accidently splitting his left index finger with a fishing knife. Lately, though, he was focused on a different kind of split-finger. Peavy unveiled a new split-fingered fastball this spring, a pitch that he says was inspired by RHP Koji Uehara, who helped him develop the grip. Uehara's split was effective enough last season that he was as dominant as any closer in history.

"It's not going to be Koji Uehara's split-finger, don't get me wrong, by any means," Peavy said. "Why would you not try to see if you can expand your game? It's something I felt like we're going to use a good bit and have as a weapon."

Peavy is slated to start the Red Sox's fourth game of the season, the home opener April 4 against the Milwaukee Brewers.

--C David Ross will play more often than the usual backup catcher, according to Red Sox manager John Farrell, who values the veteran's ability to frame pitches, call a game and communicate well with pitchers. Over the past five seasons, Ross leads the majors with a 3.29 catcher's ERA, and last October, he took over as the starter, supplanting Jarrod Saltalamacchia midway through the World Series. Still, barring injury, it is unlikely Ross will find his name in the lineup more than a few times a week, especially with primary C A.J. Pierzynski having played more games behind the plate than any active major league catcher (1,678). Ross understands his role, having spent most of his career playing second fiddle.

"I've been a backup before," Ross said. "I know how to give way to the starter. That's what I signed up for. The question of how much (playing time) is enough is a tough question for the backup. The more you play, the more comfortable you get, but if you're not going well, getting a break can be helpful. It can play both ways."

--LHP Felix Doubront was cruising through spring training, at least until a March 18 beating by the Yankees. Doubront allowed seven earned runs on 10 hits and three walks in 3 2/3 innings, struggling with his release point and command. "He probably didn't have as much finish to his pitches as we've seen in his first couple of outings," manager John Farrell said. "Quite possibly, we're into that part of camp where he's battling through a little bit of a dead arm which is completely normal and expected. But we got him up to 80 pitches, which is in line for the progression we're trying to get him to." Doubront is slated to start the third game of the season, April 3 in Baltimore.

--C Jon Denney, a former third-round pick and promising prospect in the Red Sox's lower minors, was arrested March 14 by Lee County (Fla.) police and charged with driving with a suspended license. Denney, 19, was pulled over near Fort Myers Beach when his black Ford F-150 Raptor was observed accelerating quickly through a stop sign. According to a police report, after producing a passport and an Arkansas license that was suspended because of a previous DUI arrest, Denney cussed at two officers and said he was a Red Sox player and made more money than either of the officers, likely referring to his $875,000 signing bonus. Denney was released after posting a $500 bond, and he has a March 31 court date.

The Red Sox, meanwhile, planned to get help for Denney.

"At this point, we're in the middle of putting together a program for Jon to address things that we feel he needs to address," GM Ben Cherington said. "That will likely mean he's not on the field for a while, and beyond that, I can't say anything else more than that at this time. We certainly take the incident seriously as we would with any other player. We're trying to address his needs and help him in any way we can. But certainly he has some work to do."

QUOTE TO NOTE: "Not a big fan of bees flying around my head. It's just one of those things I've never seen happen. Or I've seen it happen, but it's never happened to me. I'm sure they'll get their laughs on ESPN." -- Red Sox LF Mike Carp, after being swarmed by bees during a March 18 game against the Yankees at George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, Fla.
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