Around the Horn: Corner infielders
Red Sox know what they have in Napoli; Middlebrooks a question mark
With the start of Spring Training just a few weeks away, anticipation is building for the 2014 season. MLB.com is going around the horn to break down each area of the Red Sox, continuing this week with the corner infield.
BOSTON -- In some cases, the Red Sox were willing to switch things up from their World Series championship roster, allowing Jacoby Ellsbury to move to the Bronx and letting Jarrod Saltalamacchia flee to the Miami Marlins.
But bringing Mike Napoli back was as close to a top priority as general manager Ben Cherington had this winter, and he was able to secure the heavily bearded first baseman with a two-year deal.
Napoli proved to be vital to what Boston accomplished last season. This manifested itself in the lineup, where he served as a protective force behind David Ortiz, and also at first base, where Napoli became a top-notch defender in his first year of playing the position full-time.
"It was important," said Cherington. "It was clearly one of our priorities as we got into the offseason. A lot of things that Mike does as a player are things that we believe in strongly. He's accountable, he's responsible, he's prepared, he's a unique player in a lot of different ways."
The one ingredient nearly every team seeks from its corner infielders is power. The Red Sox should get plenty of that at first base, provided Napoli stays healthy. The X-factor is across the diamond at third.
There is a tendency to make evaluations based on the most recent sample size, and that's why there hasn't been a lot of rave reviews surrounding Will Middlebrooks this winter.
However, anybody can have a bad year, which Middlebrooks certainly had in 2013, when he actually wound up back in the Minor Leagues for a couple of months.
It's also true that anybody can bounce back, which makes Middlebrooks a prime candidate to rebound this year. Keep in mind that he's just 25 years old, and still with all the tools that made him a revelation for Boston in its otherwise-depressing 2012 season.
"You're talking about a young player who, [in 2012], was sort of taking the league by storm," said Cherington earlier this winter. "A lot of people, including us, were talking about him as one of the better young third basemen in the league. I don't think that changes just because he has a bit of a down period. He went through some lumps last year."
Middlebrooks will spend Spring Training trying to prove that those lumps are behind him.
"We're human," Middlebrooks said recently. "We want to do well. We don't want to struggle, we don't want to get sent down. We don't want to go through that. Just being as consistent as I can in every part of my game is what I learned that I need to do."
If Middlebrooks can regain a consistent power stroke, it could take some pressure off Ortiz and Napoli to constantly come up with the big home run.
While Napoli is most noted for his power, his work on fundamentals is an overlooked aspect of his game. Napoli isn't a speedster, but he works hard to be a good baserunner.
"I had to cut him back the last couple of months of the season just so we would have a healthy player," said third-base coach Brian Butterfield. "He's never going to shy away from work. He's going to work to the point you have to tell him to slow down. As a coach, you just love that."
For backup at first base, the Red Sox have a couple of good options in Daniel Nava and Mike Carp. Nava gained comfort at first base last season and should be even better after another Spring Training of getting reps there. Carp was a super sub for manager John Farrell, seemingly always coming up with big hits whenever he was in the lineup.
As for depth at third base, shortstop prospect Xander Bogaerts gained on-the-job training there in the postseason. And newly acquired Jonathan Herrera can play third if needed, though he's more comfortable up the middle.