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Middlebrooks Gets A Chance With Youkilis Hurt

Red Sox third baseman Kevin Youkilis has visited the disabled list five times since the start of the 2009 season, including his current stint due to a back strain. He's 33 years old, has hit just .205/.307/.345 since last year's All-Star break, and has a $13MM club option in his contract for 2013, so you can't fault the team for starting to think about their long-term future at the hot corner. That future is top prospect Will Middlebrooks, who was called up to the show yesterday and made his big league debut against the Athletics last night.

Middlebrooks, 23, went 2-for-3 with an infield single, a double, and a walk in his first Major League game on Wednesday. He had a monster month of April in Triple-A, whacking nine homers to go with a .333/.380/.677 batting line in exactly 100 plate appearances. That comes on the heels of a .285/.328/.506 showing (23 HR) at mostly Double-A in 2011, the breakout season that propelling him from interesting guy to the 51st best prospect in the game according to Baseball America.

The biggest concern about Middlebrooks' game is his plate discipline, or lack thereof. He really didn't improve on it a great deal during his short time in Triple-A either. His career walk rate coming into the season was just 7.5% of all plate appearances, right in line with his seven walks in those 100 minor league plate appearances this year. His 18 strikeouts are a touch below expected given his 26.8% career strikeout rate coming into the season. It typically takes between 150-200 plate appearances for walk and strikeout rates to stabilize according to FanGraphs, so the tiny bit of info we do have about WMB's plate discipline isn't overly reliable at the moment. Given his homer surge, it's fair to wonder if opposing pitchers have been pitching him more carefully, though you'd think that would result in more walks.

Anyway, you'd expect most young players to struggle with walks and strikeouts when they're first called up, so Middlebrooks' discipline issues won't be out of the ordinary for a rookie. The one thing the right-handed hitter will give fantasy owners is big power numbers, though it should be noted that Baseball America says his home run power is "to the opposite field and are line drives that carry out of the park" in their subscriber-only scouting report. Opposite field power is good, but that wouldn't allow him to take advantage of Fenway Park's most prominant feature, the 37-foot wall in left field that turns routine fly balls into doubles with regularity. Baseball America also cautions that Middlebrooks might not top a .275 batting average given his strikeout issues, but I was thinking something like .250 for his age-23 season anyway. Modest expectations, really.

The biggest problem for fantasy owners and WMB alike is Youkilis, who presumably will not stay on the disabled list forever and eventually reassume his starting third base job when healthy. Middlebrooks might only be manning the hot corner in Boston for another two weeks or so before returning to Triple-A. Youkilis hasn't done much with the bat in quite some time, but I would be surprised if manager Bobby Valentine and the Red Sox pull the plug on him before a few hundred plate appearances this season. Middlebrooks' fantasy value is dependent on how the club plays him more than anything. There's 20+ homer power here if given regular playing time, which makes him a fantasy option along the lines of Mike Moustakas or maybe even declining Aramis Ramirez.  Middlebrooks is definitely a name to remember for the future, but he might not offer enough to be worth a roster spot in 20120




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