BOSTON -- For all the question marks the Red Sox have this winter, they can look at third base on the depth chart and have feelings of comfort and excitement.
There seems little doubt who will man the hot corner at Fenway Park -- not just in 2013, but for many years to come.
When Will Middlebrooks was belted by a 96-mph fastball and suffered a fractured right wrist on Aug. 10, some of the luster was taken away from his solid rookie season.
Going forward, however, Middlebrooks creates a sense of excitement for not only what he did, but what he might do once he truly absorbs the Major League surroundings.
"He's legit," said Red Sox slugger David Ortiz. "That's my boy right there. He just came in a couple of months after the season started and he showed everybody what he's got. He belongs here. Hopefully his hand gets better and he comes back next year and does what he was doing."
It would be easy for a young player to sit around and sulk after suffering a season-ending injury. But Middlebrooks remained a constant presence in the dugout, trying to learn everything he could while not only watching the games, but also fully embracing the mentorship of Big Papi.
"It's huge," said the 24-year-old Middlebrooks. "He's one of my best friends on the team. Not only does he do stuff here for me, he does stuff off the field for me. He's been a good, genuine person."
Ortiz took an instant liking to Middlebrooks for what the rookie did on the field and his diligence behind the scenes.
"We are very close and we kind of look out for each other real well," said Ortiz. "He's a young guy and I try to teach him everything I know, and he listens and takes care of business afterward. That's what we need around here -- guys like him who are able to work hard and do what he was doing before he got injured."
While the absence of Middlebrooks and Ortiz (right Achilles injury) drained Boston's offense, the bond the veteran and the rookie formed was the one side benefit.
"I learned a ton this year," Middlebrooks said. "Being hurt, I still was able to learn a lot, sitting around the dugout with Papi, and him being hurt also. I'm just going to try to use it all to my advantage."
Thrust into an early promotion when Kevin Youkilis was hurt at the end of April, Middlebrooks instantly thrived in the Majors.
By June, it was clear that even a long-time fixture like Youkilis had become expendable. He was dealt to the White Sox, opening up the position full-time for Middlebrooks.
Before the inconvenience of the broken wrist, Middlebrooks hit .288 with 15 homers, 54 RBIs and a solid .835 OPS.
"It's a personal confidence, it raises that, just knowing I can play at this level," said Middlebrooks. "You kind of get the unknown out of the way."
Middlebrooks will go into 2013 with a mental database on the opposing pitchers. But he hung around with Ortiz and other veterans enough the final couple of months of the season to know that it works both ways.
"I know [the pitchers], but at the same time, they know me," said Middlebrooks. "I'm going to work on my weaknesses and polish my strengths and go get 'em again next year."
Defensively, Middlebrooks showed flashes of brilliance in his first year, but aims for more consistency.
"I felt like I was getting better every week, just getting the reads down and positioning and learning how to play certain players," said Middlebrooks. "It should be fun next year."
And when he gets to Fort Myers, Fla., in mid-February, Middlebrooks will no longer be a prospect feeling his way around and reminding himself to stay quiet in the clubhouse.
"It will be pretty cool, because I [wore] No. 83 this year in Spring Training, and I might have a decent one next year and actually be a part of the team and be able to break with the team," said Middlebrooks.