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Padres Option Will Middlebrooks

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The hot corner continues to be a quandary as another third baseman bites the dust.

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Slugging .509 in your first taste of big league ball is going to buy you a lot of chances - like casually mentioning you own every Phil Collins album on a first date.  Scouts and front offices have always felt Middlebrooks' power was real.  He's the kind of legit 20-25 home run threat that has become more and more elusive in the post-steroid era, especially from a right-hand hitting infielder.  The Padres felt his potential was tantalizing enough to send veteran backstop extraordinaire Ryan Hanigan to the Red Sox for him.

Hanigan has never done much with the bat, but does all the great periphery things that veteran catchers do - frame pitches, call a great game, get to balls in the dirt.  As unimpressive as his .218/.318/.324 slash line is, MIddlebrooks has been even worse: .212/.241/.361.  The Middlebrooks experiment was clearly an upside play that hasn't paid dividends.  You want to see the front office taking risks on these types of players, but his struggles were clearly a known possibility.

Despite sporting a career best 22.2% strikeout rate, Middlebrooks has struggled with commanding the zone.  He's chasing more pitches than ever (32% vs. a career rate of 29.2%).  Likewise his already scary walk rate reached an abysmal 4.1%.  Always an extreme fly-ball hitter, the man they call Girth Brooks reached a new low in ground ball-% and is below his average line drive-% as well.  You can forget about a hitter like him ever having a high BABIP.  The take away from these numbers? Pitchers aren't respecting what he can do with the ball and challenging with fastballs and sinkers early, and getting him to chase on ugly pitches late - particularly sliders.  While he has shown that he can still crush the mistake pitch from time to time, his bat just has not been enough of a threat to keep pitchers honest.  Like when you threaten to do 50 Shades of Gray stuff but everyone knows intimacy always makes you wind up crying in the bathtub.

The good news? Middlebrooks has been slightly less awful against left handed pitching while playing "useful" defense and possessing big power potential.  With lefties unable to get him to chase on sliders, Will has been able to sit on fastballs and wait for mistake pitches.  He's held his own against cut fastballs and does't see enough changeups to really worry.  Even in this struggling season he's turned in an ISO greater than .2 - the typical barometer for a 25 home run guy.  For his career he has been an average hitter with above average power against left-handed pitching and that has some utility in a bench player.  While he isn't Chase Headley in the hot corner, Middlebrooks' defense is quite steady and he doesn't often miss plays that he should make.  He's also a competent first baseman who has even played second base and shortstop in his career.  Any role for him in the future has got to be a corner infield type, but that kind of versatility in a pinch is much appreciated, especially in the national league game.

Still just 26, Middlebrooks has time to develop into a useful player.  However, with the glaring flaws in his game there are long odds for him to ever develop as a consistent starter on a good team.  Padres fans who haven't developed depression-linked amnesia might liken his game to Kevin Kouzmanoff.  Though the inability to work the count hurts him, he possesses some skills that could make for a good pinch hitter one day.  A team with a short porch in left field might consider trying to mold him into a Mark Trumbo-type that has positional versatility.  At the least, he has some value with the Padres as organizational depth since he has options remaining.

Moving forward the Padres will probably be auditioning some combination of Yangervis Solarte, Yonder Alonso, Cory Spangenberg and perhaps even Wil Myers at third base.  Solarte has the most experience at the hot corner, and it is the only position where he doesn't look awful, but he has the bat of a utility player.  Solarte is essentially the safe, low-upside play at third.  Spangenberg has some potential as a hitter and fielder, but he plays best at second base and his bat has not come around yet.  Alonso has shown eagerness to try his old high school position again, and the limited early returns have been mixed but promising.  Manager Pat Murphy has confirmed that Alonso will be getting more looks at third base (ostensibly with Myers shifting to first when he returns).  Wil Myers is strictly my own speculation as a third baseman, but he played some hot corner as a minor leaguer and has the prototypical body of a third baseman.  His instincts and footwork will be tested, but he has the athleticism and the arm to handle the position.  The added benefit of Alonso or Myers at third is that it also removes a below average outfield glove from the equation.  If Justin Upton is lost at the trade deadline or in free agency, the Padres could dramatically improve their outfield defense in a hurry and gauge the importance of greater defensive emphasis on next year's team.