Middlebrooks Punted Football To Join Red Sox

BOSTON—As best friends in Texarkana, Texas, Will Middlebrooks and Ryan Mallett had a vision.

"Ever since the time we were in seventh grade, we said we're both going to end up in the NFL," Middlebrooks said. "We'll be neighbors and on the same team."

Mallett is on the cusp of fulfilling that dream after being drafted by the New England Patriots following a celebrated career at Arkansas. But Middlebrooks ended up taking a different path to New England.

Middlebrooks was a talented quarterback and punter at Liberty-Eylau High who ended up signing a letter of commitment to Texas A&M on a two-sport scholarship. In his senior year, he started to notice the swelling ranks of scouts attending his baseball games, starting with a season-opening scrimmage in which he pitched.

"I remember thinking, 'Who are all these guys with radar guns?' It made sense after that, but I had no idea they'd be there," Middlebrooks said. "With baseball, I started to see that maybe there's a future here as well, and I wanted to continue on both roads."

Choosing His Path

Middlebrooks was regarded as a prospect both as a pitcher—his fastball once touched 97 mph—and as a shortstop. Middlebrooks skipped the showcase circuit, so the Red Sox made him a priority follow entering his senior year. They had a scout at every one of his games, and they sent in several crosscheckers and front-office members to see him play. Reviews were universally positive, as was the conclusion that his greatest impact potential was as a position player.

"Walking out and seeing him, he stood out physically," Red Sox area scout Jim Robinson said. "(He was) big, lean, athletic (and) had a cannon for an arm—as soon as you put a ball in his hand and could see him throw."

"And he had raw power. He had big raw power. I can remember seeing him in a workout at (Rangers Ballpark in Arlington) that summer prior to his senior year, and he was just launching them into the stands there with a wooden bat."

The Sox assessed Middlebrooks as a player who, based on talent alone, might go as a sandwich pick. They envisioned a player with the tools to be a starting third baseman in the big leagues with 25-30 homer potential.

But because of his two-sport commitment, some teams questioned his signability. Entering the 2007 draft, Middlebrooks had been told that he could go anywhere from the first to third rounds. Instead, he remained on the board in the fifth round, when the Sox selected him.

"In our opinion, (questions about signability) are why he got to us," Robinson said. "That reason alone."

Ultimately, those concerns proved unfounded—so long as the money was right. Eager to join the Red Sox organization, Middlebrooks signed for $925,000.

"Who doesn't want to sign with the Red Sox out of high school?" Middlebrooks said. "Honestly, I wanted to start my career. I wanted to sign."

Learning Curve

In his first two years as a pro, first in the short-season New York-Penn League in 2008 and then at low Class A Greenville of the South Atlantic League in '09, Middlebrooks got off to horrible starts.

Ultimately, he found his way in the second half of both seasons. Because he hadn't been committed to baseball on a year-round basis as an amateur, Middlebrooks had some developmental ground to make up compared with some of his professional peers.

"I was very raw coming out of high school—very raw," Middlebrooks said. "I was basically an athlete, not a baseball player. I played sports year-round. Whatever season it was, I was doing it. I never focused on one sport for a long period of time in high school . . . (so) I'm still refining so many things to become a better baseball player."

At the same time, the progress that he has made has already changed the dynamic of his developmental progression.  In 2010, he got off to a scorching start for high Class A Salem of the Carolina League, earning all-star honors en route to a year in which he hit .276/.331/.439 with 12 homers and 70 RBIs. Managers recognized him as the top defensive third baseman in the league.

In Double-A Portland to start the 2011 season, the 22-year-old Middlebrooks once again started hot as one of the league's younger players. Through 26 games, he was hitting .343/.374/.578 with four homers, continuing a pattern of year-after-year progress that is reflected both by steadily improving numbers (his average and OPS have increased in each pro season) and a consistently improving approach.

"There was a development curve, and I think he's finally on top of that," Robinson said. "His first couple years, it took him a long time to get going and warmed up. The good thing about that is he always improved as the season went along. Now he's putting good starts to his career, and that bodes well."

And so Middlebrooks has been left with no regrets about the path not taken. Yes, the thought occurred to him that he could have been on the field for Texas A&M in their Cotton Bowl in January, but he is secure that he chose the right career path.

"I see where my future is going," said Middlebrooks. "I have zero regrets with my decision."