Former PawSox manager Gary DiSarcina: Xander Bogaerts still a shortstop, Will Middlebrooks can be a force

January 17, 2014 - 2:26 am

As the manager of the Red Sox' Triple-A affiliate in Pawtucket in 2013, Gary DiSarcina had a great view of one of the most intriguing dilemmas of the season for the organization. In mid-August, after the Sox traded Jose Iglesias to the Tigers in a three-way deal that netted Jake Peavy, the Sox wrestled with whether to call up phenom Xander Bogaerts or bring back Will Middlebrooks to serve as the team's everyday third baseman.  The team ended up calling up Middlebrooks, who offered solid production down the stretch, hitting .276 with a .329 OBP, .476 slugging mark and eight homers in his final 41 games of the year, though Bogaerts ultimately displaced Middlebrooks as the Sox' starting third baseman in the postseason. DiSarcina, in an interview on WEEI's Hot Stove show, explained that, at the time that he was asked to recommend one of those players for the big leagues, Middlebrooks was the more finished product who appeared ready to make the immediate contribution. Yet Bogaerts quickly pushed his development to the point where he convinced DiSarcina and the Sox that he was major league-ready just a couple weeks later in August. "There was definitely pressure to push Xander just because of his impact bat and his ability to do some things in the field -- play shortstop, which Will could not do," said DiSarcina. "My recollection, my first recommendation was Will just because of what he did in the past. At the same time, with the development of Xander, he kind of developed very, very quickly. It wasn't a six-month thing for him. When the question was asked early in Xander's time in Pawtucket, would you recommend Will or Xander, I recommended Will, because I thought he was the best player at the time who could help the big league club and with some experience and renewed confidence he could step in and help out there. "At the same time, within a six-week span (in Pawtucket), Xander just really blossomed. He started making some improvements in some areas where I wasn't just comfortable recommending him to them. Those are the areas that aren't seen in the box score -- making decisions in the game, in the field, running the bases, getting signs, all those little things that you have to sharpen up and hone up before you go up there, Xander wasn't there yet and Will was. When I had Will, right before he went up the last time, he was running the bases hard, he was running the bases properly, he was making good decisions, he was playing solid defense, his work ethic was great, his at-bats were solid. I know he was only hitting about .250, .260 at the time, but he was doing all the things that a major league ballplayer should be doing. He was just doing them in Triple-A. I initially recommended Will and then within a six- or seven-week timeframe, Xander came on very strong and there was no holding the kid back." While Middlebrooks ultimately ended up ceding the third base job in the ALCS and World Series to Bogaerts, DiSarcina remains convinced that the 25-year-old can still be an impact player in the big leagues -- even without a significant alteration to the offensive approach that resulted in a .271 OBP in 94 games in the big leagues in 2013. "I think for Will, it's easy to sit here and say he's got to cut down on the strikeouts, he's got to swing at strikes. I don't look at it so much as that. I just look at it as, he's got to get his pitch to hit and not miss it. The times that I did see him in Pawtucket, he'd foul stuff straight back, he'd miss hanging sliders, he'd miss a changeup up," said DiSarcina. "I didn't see him up in that time when Bobby Valentine was managing and (Middlebrooks) was up (in the big leagues) and on fire, but I heard the stories about he was in Pawtucket before he went up there and how he was when he was there, not missing mistakes. I think that for Will, it gets back to, the minute that he gets to the ballpark, his mind has to be focused on what he's doing that day -- his routine at the cage, his batting practice routine, his infield routine. When Will gets routine-oriented, he's a force to be reckoned with. He stays within himself at the plate. When he steps in the batter's box, from being in Pawtucket down in the third base coaching box, he looks like a big leaguer. That's what they're supposed to look like. That's what Troy Glaus looked like." Still, DiSarcina -- who was hired by the Angels this offseason to be the team's big league third base coach -- suggested that Middlebrooks is not a finished product. Most notably, the former PawSox skipper -- who managed Middlebrooks in his first pro season in 2008 with the Lowell Spinners -- said that Middlebrooks needs to play with competitive hunger rather than assuming that a big league role is his. "Will has the potential to be an impact right-handed bat. With (Red Sox third base coach) Brian Butterfield working with him defensively and helping him progress at the major league level last year, he's made some strides. He still has to get better," said DiSarcina. "I think the one thing for Will that I wish he did last year and I hope he does this year is that he comes into spring training and he comes in to win a job. He has nothing handed to him. he comes in to just win a job, because I think that's when you get the best Will Middlebrooks. That's when he'll play his best, he'll be aggressive, he'll be smart -- all those good things you look for in a ballplayer. Don't come in and be entitled. Come in and win a job and keep a job. "This goes back to my playing experience, too -- there's a lot of players who have three really good months of a run. They come in and they come up and whether it's July or August, they do really well until the end of the year or reverse. The season's not about three months. It's about seven, eighth months if you want to make the playoffs," said DiSarcina. "To be an established player in the big leagues, for most guys, you have to have three, four, five years. You have to pay your dues and go about your business the right way, listen to the veterans, come to the ballpark everyday, know your role. When you experience success so quickly -- and I'm not faulting Will for this -- when you experience success so quickly at such a young age in such a great market like Boston with all the great stuff that comes along with it, it's real easy for a young player to get caught up in it. And I think for Will, the best thing that he's done is take a step back, what's important to him is playing baseball for a championship team. I think he proved it at the end of the year." Yet DiSarcina also praised Middlebrooks for how he conducted himself in Pawtucket even while trying to reassert his big league credentials. Specifically, the former PawSox manager praised how the third baseman acted towards the player who was vying for the same big league job that he was. "One of the highlights for me -- not many people know it about Will -- when we were in the process of converting Xander to third base, Will was in Pawtucket. Will came out and took ground balls with him. Nobody asked him to," said DiSarcina. "Will came out and took ground balls with Xander at third base. I was hitting ground balls from home plate, and Will was helping him out, teaching him about angles. It was actually Xander's first day going over there. I had to stop the drill and I just let Will talk for about five or six minutes. I think those are the lessons I see of maturity coming out with Will. I look back on having Will in Pawtucket, and that was one of the highlights -- he took five, six, seven, eight minutes to help Xander out with the intricacies of third base." Though Bogaerts ultimately made his impact as a third baseman in the playoffs, going forward, DiSarcina suggested that he views the Red Sox' top prospect as a capable defensive shortstop. "I'm a firm believer that you play yourself off the position, that you let the player play himself off the position. For me, Xander has not played himself off the position yet. For me, Xander has not played himself off the position yet. I did not see any indications for the two solid months of playing shortstop," said DiSarcina. "The one thing I really looked at with Xander was the ability to play the game in the sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth innings defensively. What I loved about him is he stayed calm in the field, he made the plays. He's a little unconventional -- he's a narrow-based infielder, he's tall, he's going to be a big kid, he's still growing. He's got a great arm, he's got great hand-eye coordination. He turned two double plays with a one-run lead in the ninth inning where he stayed calm and collected. Those are the little things I looked for with Xander. To me, he's going to have Brian Butterfield all spring training. I like to consider myself a good infield instructor, but Butter, he takes it to a different level. He's a great infield instructor. I'm excited for Xander to have that resource around for all of spring training. I think leave him out there until he plays himself off the position, and I see no indication of that." To hear DiSarcina's complete interview on the Hot Stove show, click here.