Originally written on NESN.com  |  Last updated 5/8/13
Will Middlebrooks is off to a very rough start, yet he is still one of the most important players in the Red Sox’ lineup. Nothing makes that more evident than when Boston is faced with the idea of not having the third baseman. Middlebrooks collided with David Ross while fielding a popup along the wall in foul territory on Tuesday night. Both Middlebrooks and Ross exited the game, and Middlebrooks is listed as day-to-day with soreness in the right side of his rib cage. An initial X-Ray revealed that Middlebrooks suffered no fractures, and the slugger underwent an MRI on Wednesday that also revealed no structural damage. “Any time I think you have soreness in your core, there’s the potential for some limitations with any kind of rotational movement,” manager John Farrell said before Wednesday’s game. “But he went down and swung the bat in the cage earlier today, hit off a tee and then went over for the MRI. He’s banged up a little bit, and he’s day to day.” All things considered, that’s positive news for the Red Sox. As horrendous as Middlebrooks has been to start the season, they can hardly afford to be without him for an extended period of time. It’s a fact that holds true for a number of reasons. Middlebrooks has been dismal at the plate, hitting .192 with a .228 on-base percentage and 39 strikeouts. Let’s keep in mind, though, that he’s still just 24 years old and developing. The best way to go about developing is to receive consistent at-bats. With a lingering injury, Middlebrooks obviously wouldn’t receive those consistent at-bats, which in turn would stunt his growth as a hitter. Consistent at-bats, in fact, are why many players are placed in the minors even after they’ve shown an ability to contribute in some capacity at the major league level. Jose Iglesias and Jackie Bradley Jr., for example, could provide something off the Red Sox’ bench, but keeping them on the big league roster didn’t make sense because they wouldn’t play every day. Instead, the logical choice is to keep them in the minors, where they’ll continue to make strides while playing every day. The development factor when it comes to Middlebrooks tends to get overlooked a bit because of how he burst onto the scene in 2012. Middlebrooks showed the poise of a seasoned veteran, and looking at his .288 average, 15 home runs and 54 RBIs in just 74 games last year made it easy to assume he’d produce at a similar level this season. In other words, some of us got ahead of ourselves. But even now, as Middlebrooks continues to try and break his season-long slump, the Sox can’t afford to lose the slugger, and it’s because of what lies behind him. Pedro Ciriaco is a solid utilityman, but he isn’t equipped to be an everyday player. And when it comes to reinforcements, the Red Sox don’t have much beyond Brock Holt or Justin Henry, who both project more as major league bench players. Even with Middlebrooks listed as day to day, the Red Sox are backed into a corner a bit. With Ciriaco thrown into a starting role, the Sox are essentially without a backup infielder. “Let’s see, what position?” Farrell said before Wednesday’s game when asked who would serve as the team’s backup infielder if an emergency situation arose and Middlebrooks was unable to go. “Yeah, Jonny Gomes has caught, he’s played first, I’m sure if we asked him to play short, he’d do that,” Farrell continued. “Like I said, if we get into that rare situation, I’m sure we’ll through it.” The harsh reality is that the Red Sox’ lack of third base options makes losing Middlebrooks a disastrous situation to think about. It was a disastrous situation to think about when he exited a game during spring training, and even after more than a month of subpar baseball from Middlebrooks, such a scenario is just as unattractive. The Red Sox really dodged a bullet following Tuesday’s collision. Have a question for Ricky Doyle? Send it to him via Twitter at @TheRickyDoyle or send it here. 
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