There isn’t much good news at the major league level for Boston Red Sox fans these days. At 5-10, they are off to another disappointing start and find themselves looking up at every other team in the very competitive AL East. There is some good news, however. It just happens to be at the minor league level where a couple of prospects are piling up some prolific numbers.
Will Middlebrooks, the team’s fifth-round pick in 2007, is currently second in the minors in home runs with eight, trailing only behind 31 year-old journeyman Brad Eldred who has a ridiculous 12 home runs and 34 RBI through 19 games. Middlebrooks recently had a stretch where he went deep in four straight games. Through 19 games at triple-A Pawtucket of the International League, he is hitting .375 (27-for-72) with 17 runs, three doubles, eight home runs, 25 RBI, three stolen bases and a 1.208 OPS. The 6’-4”, 23-year-old third baseman can attribute much of his success this season to being more patient at the plate, something the team wanted him to work on before a promotion to the big league club. Over his 19 games, he has drawn seven walks while striking out 10 times, including just three punch-outs over his last 10 games.
Middlebrooks has been one of the team’s top prospects since they drafted him out of Liberty-Eylau HS in Texarkana, Texas. As a senior, he hit .551 with 22 doubles, five home runs, 48 RBI and 22 stolen bases over 38 games. Scouts loved his bat, arm and savvy baseball instincts. His defense needed work, and so did his approach at the plate as his long swing was a sign of a lot of missed balls at the next level.
Entering 2011, his third full season, he had totaled 317 strikeouts to just 95 walks over 276 minor league games. The power hadn’t fully developed yet and he was still just a line-drive gap hitter. Over three levels in 2011, he hit .285 with 26 doubles, 23 home runs, 94 RBI and stole 10 bases. The power showed up but he struck out 114 times to just 26 walks. His defense did get better, however, as he committed 16 errors for a .945 fielding percentage.
He entered this season as the number-one prospect in the organization by Baseball America and MLB.com. Aside from his improvements at the plate, he has only committed one error on the season at third base. He is putting pressure on the Red Sox to give him a look sooner rather than later, especially the way fan-favorite Kevin Youkilis, AKA The Greek God of Walks, has been playing this year. After a sub-par 2011, in which he hit .258 with an .833 OPS while missing more than 40 games due to injury, he has started this season in a major slump. Through his first 13 games, Youkilis is hitting .174 with one home run, five RBI and three walks to 14 strikeouts. At age 33, and past his prime, he has a club option for $13MM for 2013 with a $1MM buyout. Both he and Middlebrooks are making that decision an easy one for the Red Sox brass.
Matt Barnes was the team’s first-round pick (19th overall) in the 2011 draft out of Connecticut. As a senior, he went 11-5 with a 1.93 ERA, 0.93 WHIP and 117 K/33 BB over 121 innings. The 6’-4”, 210-pound right-hander is a power pitcher who can get his fastball up to 96 mph and maintain that velocity deep into games. He also features a plus curveball and above average change-up. Besides having great power behind his pitches, he also has excellent command of all three.
The 21-year old made his pro debut at Class-A Greenville of the Sally League this season. After his first four starts, his game log looks like this:
- 5 IP 0 ER 2 H 9 K 2 BB
- 5 IP 0 ER 1 H 7 K 0 BB
- 6 IP 0 ER 3 H 9 K 0 BB
- 5 IP 0 ER 3 H 9 K 2 BB
Over 21 innings, he is 2-0 with a 0.00 ERA, 0.62 WHIP and 34 K/4 BB. Aside from maybe Dylan Bundy, who he was matched up against in his last start on April 24, Barnes has been the most dominant pitcher in the minors this season. Bundy, the Orioles first-round pick in 2011, tossed four hitless innings in the game and still hasn’t allowed a hit over his first four career starts. The 19-year-old right-hander has pitched 13 innings with 21 strikeouts and just one walk for Class-A Delmarva.
With the Red Sox sporting an MLB-worst 6.56 team ERA, Barnes may be on the fast track to the majors.