Who’s on third?

Ryan Roberts (L), Will Middlebrooks (C), Garin Cecchini (R)

The Red Sox made an interesting move when they signed journeyman infielder Ryan Roberts to play third base until Will Middlebrooks returns. The Roberts contract cost the Red Sox a million dollars, which isn’t a lot of money in baseball terms, but Middlebrooks ostensibly only has a calf strain. The recovery period for this injury should be a couple weeks of rest, a few at bats in Pawtucket, then a return to Boston by the end of the month.

So why would the Red Sox spend a million on a journeyman who, in this situation, is essentially a one month rental? Why not bring up Garin Cecchini, the 22 year old phenom who’s killing it in Pawtucket right now, for a cup of coffee in The Show?

Here are two possible answers to that question. First is that Cecchini isn’t ready: he’s only played 5 games of AAA ball after being in Portland last year, and he hit under .200 in Spring Training. Second answer regards Cecchini’s options: if the Red Sox keep him in the minors for 20 games in 2014, then they extend their control of his contract out to 2020. Given the gargantuan sums of cash being spent on free agents right now, spending $1 million now on a journeyman to ensure that you keep Cecchini under an extra year of control makes sense.

Still, it’s feasible that Cecchini could have been called up for a month to fill in for Middlebrooks, then sent back down to Pawtucket to get his 20 games in so the Red Sox can keep their 2020 option on him. Why shell out a million to a journeyman to do this job?

What makes the Ryan Roberts signing interesting is what it means for Middlebrooks. The Red Sox either know that Middlebrooks’ injury is worse than what’s being reported, or they are so disappointed with his performance that they are sending Middlebrooks a message: “Third base isn’t yours, you need to earn it.”

Middlebrooks has considerable power potential at the plate, but his MLB career thus far has been a disappointment. He’s made three trips to the DL in three seasons, and his stat line of .227 BA, .271 OBP with 17 HR last year would barely cut it if he was a catcher, but it’s unacceptable for a third baseman. If Middlebrooks provided a great glove then his troubles at the plate would be more palatable, but he made 10 errors in only 92 games last season.

For the Red Sox, it’s at the point where having a third baseman who can field well and have an OBP around .300 – .320 is more valuable than seeing if Middlebrooks can ever mature and become the ballplayer everyone wants to see.  Middlebrooks has shown flashes of greatness, but the Red Sox just spent a million on a player who could serve as the bridge to Cecchini. The team isn’t bleeping around anymore: It’s do or die time for Middlebrooks.