The Red Sox Shuffle : Kevin Youkilis, Will Middlebrooks, and Daniel Bard

When Terry Francona was manager, he usually pointed out that worrying about the bench and pinch hitters wasn’t a big concern for the Red Sox because the front office had built an everyday lineup. Players were responsible for one position, with a little background in another for the occasional “banged up” guy who avoided the disabled list by sitting out for six or seven days. He never imagined the type of injuries that would follow the Red Sox from Spring Training forward in 2012. Now that Alfredo Aceves has locked down the closer job, at least until Andrew Bailey returns,, the two players who are still, possibly, in flux as to their position going forward: Daniel Bard and Kevin Youkilis.

The Bard

One of the most surprising storylines of the past offseason was the plan to move Daniel Bard, heir apparent to Jonathan Papelbon, from the closer line of succession and into the starting rotation. There were views taken on both sides: Bard was not particularly impressive as a starter after first signing with the Red Sox but was lights out as a reliever and Bard as a even a 3/4/5 starter would be more valuable over 200 innings per season than as a closer or setup guy pitching at most 80 innings each year. Peter Abraham of the Boston Globe was ready to end the Bard experiment a few weeks ago. At the time, I wholeheartedly disagreed. Bard’s work in relief was brilliant: in 197 innings between 2009 and 2011 Bard struck out 213 batters, surrendered 76 walks of the unintentional variety, and gave up just 132 hits.

If even half of that stuff could follow him into the starting rotation the impact would have been huge. I hoped the Red Sox would stick with Bard as long as it took to find out if he could be a starter. While the Red Sox continued to send Bard out for the first inning, the wheels eventually fell off, and the car rolled all the way down a cliff into a ditch. On June 3rd against the Blue Jays, Bard lasted just 1.2 innings. While recording five outs Bard walked 6, hit 2, and allowed 5 runs. It took 55 pitches – nearly half as many as he normally threw over five or six inning outings, even those (most of them) where Bard wasn’t exactly sharp.

And so Daniel Bard was returned to the minors. The Red Sox were committed to the experiment. After all, Bard had just 55.0 MLB innings as a starter under his belt. On June 8th, Bard made his first minor league start. It could have gone better: 1.0 inning, 3 runs (but 2 Ks). After this outing, the Sox, still committed to Bard as a starter, decided to shake things up: he would continue to build back to a starter’s workload through relief outings. Returning Bard to the kind of outings he succeeded in the past seems to have worked. In his next five innings for the PawSox Bard gave up just 1 run and 2 walks while striking out 6.

At the moment, the Red Sox are still committed to bringing Bard back to the Majors as a starting pitcher, but nothing is written in stone. Daisuke Matsuzaka is back, Aaron Cook isn’t far behind, and the Red Sox have been rumored to be interested in Cubs’ starters Ryan Dempster and Matt Garza. Should any of these have success – either on field or via acquisition – the Sox could easily return Bard to the bullpen and have a deep back-of-the-pen including Aceves, Bailey, Melancon, and Bard. If the Red Sox can win a few more games on the back of a starting rotation that keeps the team competitive, that is a playoff-caliber bullpen.

Whether or not Bard makes another start, getting him back on track is the key. Right now, it looks like the trip to the minors is just what the doctor ordered.

Stuck in the Middlebrooks with Youk

Will Middlebrooks has played well enough to warrant a starting job on a Major League team. A .289/.328/.484 line with 7 home runs and a quality glove at third base is nothing to sneeze at. Despite being the youngest, least experienced, player of the bunch, Middlebrooks has stayed at third base while Adrian Gonzalez has played right field, allowing Kevin Youkilis to man first. It’s not ideal, but everyone is getting at bats.

The problem is that Youkilis is mired in a slump: .215/.301/.314 on the season and .211/.309/.338 since returning from the disabled list. It doesn’t matter how many teams Ben Charrington talks to about the veteran third baseman, a slumping player coming off tough injuries is not an easy sell.

However, Ken Rosenthal, the expert on knowing where players are going, hears that the end is in fact near for Youkilis. An official with a National League team told Rosenthal that the Greek God of Walks is “being shopped everywhere.” Among the leaders are the Diamondbacks, Dodgers, and Pirates in the National League and the White Sox and Indians in the American League. The demand is there, the price is probably low, although that doesn’t mean the Red Sox won’t get a decent player of some type in return if they pick up some salary, and the replacement is in-house. This is a combination of factors not often present when a trade is rumored or, in fact, imminent.

Where do they go from here?

Fourth place. At least. The Toronto Blue Jays have lost three starters in the past week – one has already undergone Tommy John surgery, ending his season. If Ellsbury, Crawford, and Bailey can contribute at anything close to their ability, Clay Buchholz avoids Logan Morrison, and Ryan Kalish is healthy, the Red Sox have the ability to field a dramatically better team in the second half. And that doesn’t include Adrian Gonzalez breaking out of his season-long slump. The bottom has likely already passed, even if it hasn’t been reflected in the win column.

Baseball on the Brain?

The six months of Major League Baseball’s regular season are jam-packed with 162 games for each of the 30 teams. All winter I wait for baseball season to begin again. Sometimes I wonder if it pervades my mind too much?

This is sadly not a crochet creation of MVP candidate Josh Hamilton. 

Kevin Youkilis: On the Block?

The 2012 Boston Red Sox look a lot like the 2011 version of the team. Two players entered this year as potential free agents: David Ortiz and Kevin Youkilis. Ortiz, enjoying a tremendous resurgence, may have already guaranteed himself another arbitration deal with the Red Sox, but Kevin Youkilis, over whom the Sox have a $13 million option for next season, may not even finish 2012 in a Boston uniform. The question is: if he’s not playing in Fenway, where is he?

2012 did not start the way Youkilis would have wanted. Right off the bat his new manager was calling him out to the media questioning not his health or his playing ability but his intangibles: Bobby Valentine criticized his passion for the game. The new Sox skipper said Youk just wasn’t “as physically or emotionally into the game as he has been in the past.” While both sides tried to dismiss the comments and focus on the team – struggling mightily at the time – Ken Rosenthal is reporting that, according to a baseball executive,“Valentine wanted Youkilis out as far back as spring training, viewing him as a liability.”

If that wasn’t enough, the third baseman soon hit the disabled list and prospect Will Middlebrooks go off to a roaring start and, with a few slumps, is hitting .259/.295/.552 with 4 home runs. Middlebrooks has proven himself in the minors and has held his own in the majors, is generally expected to become the starter in 2013. If the Red Sox think he is ready to stay, maybe when Youkilis returns from the DL, he’ll be featured for a trade.

Who’s Looking?

There are a few teams who could use help at the infield corners who might be interested in the veteran “Greek God of Walks.”

The Dodgers, lead by superstars Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw, are off to a surprising start in a weak NL West. Their current starter at third base? Juan Uribe. Uribe is hitting just .250/.302/.338 with a home run and a healthy Youk would be an improvement on his .640 OPS. The story doesn’t get much better across the diamond: James Loney, who never developed into the player the Dodgers always thought he would, is hitting .233/.310/.336. If a move back to first base could keep Youkilis healthy, an option the Red Sox don’t have, the Dodgers’ current roster construction wouldn’t make that very difficult.

North of LA, the San Francisco Giants, also looking at the weakness of their division, and currently without Pablo Sandoval, aka Kung Fu Panda, could be interested as well. Sandoval is currently sidelined with a hand injury, and while he should return in another month or so, Youkilis might be ready before then. Like the Dodgers, the Giants also have a question mark at first base. Prospect Brandon Belt hasn’t forced the team to pencil him into the lineup every day, giving an opening for Youkilis to take over. Belt also has experience playing the outfield, which could allow the Giants to upgrade offensively at two positions if Belt can really get into gear – he has the ability, just not the track record in the Majors.

What Red Sox trade talk would be complete without including his former boss, Theo Epstein? The breakout of Bryan LaHair at first base has been well publicized: the formerly-labeled quad-A player has slugged 10 home runs already this season while hitting (an unsustainable) .330/.422/.670. While the power is real his other stats will likely regress a bit as the season goes on. Behind LaHair is former Sox and Padres first base prospect Anthony Rizzo. Rizzo will eventually inherit the first base job when LaHair is traded or shifted to the outfield. But the hot corner is occupied by Darwin Barney.

Barney is a fine stopgap while the Cubs rebuild, but the Cubs may decide to play up their Red Sox knowledge again. Adding Youkilis to man third base this year, and possibly next year, would give the club a veteran leader with a solid batting eye. Youkilis is injury prone at this point in his career and can’t be expected for 162 games, but Epstein and Hoyer know this. The money isn’t a huge obstacle for the large-market Cubs and even the option is just a one year commitment. Like evert rebuilding team, the Cubs need to balance putting a decent product on the field with their efforts to become competitive again. Alfonso Soriano is a high-priced player well past his prime, but Youkilis probably still has something left in the tank, and it might be enough to warrant an upgrade from Barney to keep the team looking respectable, if not competitive. Even an understanding fan base likes to go to the ballpark with a chance to see their team have a good game.

Full Circle

In a way, the situation facing Kevin Youkilis today is not all that different than the one he was in during 2004. Bill Mueller, the 2003 batting champion and Red Sox third baseman at the time, went on the disabled list. The Sox called up the already Moneyball-famous Youk to take over at third base. Youk impressed, but not enough to win the job away from Mueller that season. In 2005, Youk got in work at third and first as Kevin Millar, John Olerud, and the immortal Roberto Petagine spent time in a first base platoon. In 2006, the starting job at first was his because of the arrival of Mike Lowell (with Josh Beckett) to handle the hot corner.

Maybe Middlebrooks will stay cool until Youkilis returns. Maybe he’ll heat up and force the Red Sox hand on a trade before Youk gets going himself. Maybe Carl Crawford has another setback but Middlebrooks ends up returning to the big leagues as a left fielder this season. As they say, these things have a way of working themselves out.

Rays Young Pitching: It Keeps Going, and Going…

It looks like the Rays are at in again in terms of setting records with young pitching:

James Shields is, of course, the “old man” of the staff at 30 years old, drafted way back in Y2K, but still a pitcher drafted and developed by Tampa. Like Jonah Keri talks about in his book The Extra 2%, the Rays take the long view regarding their franchise and the starting rotation is a product of that. 

With Wade Davis working out of the bullpen and Alex Cobb in the minors, the Rays have young pitching depth that any team would envy.

He’s Going Crazy, Call Him Superman

Josh Hamilton hit his 9th home run of the week, and 18th of the year, on Saturday. In addition to doubling his current season total, Hamilton has accumulated 1.6 WAR in this week alone.

In 2011 8 players hit 18 home runs over the course of the entire season. The list isn’t made up of superstars, but it’s a solid group of guys: 

+ Mekly Cabrera

+ Chris Heisey

+ Chipper Jones

+ Howie Kendrick

+ Carlos Lee

+ Russell Martin

+ Miguel Montero

+ Brandon Phillips

In all, 76 players hit more than 18 home runs. Hamilton himself hit “just” 25 long balls last year. Much has been made about Hamilton’s inability to play the field, but he did appear in 156 games in 2008. The problem is the other years of his career have game totals of just 90, 89, 133, and 121.

If Hamilton appears in more than 133 games, the total from his MVP year in 2010, he should stand to crush those numbers. Hamilton  is already more than half way to his home run total (32) and forty percent of the way to his RBI total (100) and a third of the way towards his runs scored (95), This fast a start could carry him to a career year even with a slump or injury mixed in during the remainder of the season.

Three True Outcomes: Return of the King

At the beginning of the 2011 season, few players received as much hype as Adam Dunn. After signing a two-year deal with the Washington Nationals his first time in free agency, Dunn did what he does best: hit home runs, strike out, and walk. Dunn was the model of consistency: 38 home runs both years in D.C. (following 5 straight 40 homer campaigns), about 100 walks (116 in 2009, 77 in 2010), and close to 200 strikeouts (177 and 199 respectively) each season. If that wasn’t quite enough to earn a good free agent contract, Dunn played in 159 and 158 games during his time in Washington.

Signing a 4 year, $56 million dollar deal with the White Sox made it look like things were finally going Dunn’s way. The White Sox, a team not known as a bastion of progressive baseball had signed a high-strikeout slugger to a big contract…to serve as the designated hitter. Not first base, not left field, DH. They would have their own David Ortiz, or a the very least, a player a far sight better than Mark Kotsay.

Cellular Field is a homer friendly park  and was coming off a 2010 season where it was very hitter friendly to hitters. Dunn was expected to thrive. But something happened: he didn’t. His strikeout and walk numbers were similar to the year before, but one hundred points of batting average disappeared, along with his on-base and slugging percentages, and the possible 50 home run season for Dunn turned into just 11.

Fast forward to 2012 and everything has changed. Well, some things have changed. Entering the penultimate day of April Dunn had racked up 33 strikeouts, 14 walks, and 4 home runs. He’d hit another against Boston that afternoon and pick up two more walks and a strikeout as well for a perfect Adam Dunn day. For a guy who didn’t hit hit fifth home run until May 24th in 2011 (forgotten in Dunn’s troubles last year: on opening day he went 2-4 with a double, a home run, and 4 RBI) this is quite the improvement. The 2010 vintage of Adam Dunn, though the same number of games (22), looked like this: 22 strikeouts, 15 walks,  and 4 home runs. The uptick in Ks is potentially alarming – Dunn has struck out at least once per game in 2012 – but at the moment are not overwhelming his game. 

While his early season like of .224/.352/.474, good for an .825 OPS, may not be quite the Adam Dunn of old it is certainly an improvement over the Dunn of 2011. His April has, baring a very unusual Monday, claim to the title of Three True Outcomes Champion for baseball’s first month. Entering Sunday, Dunn lead all major leaders with 51 TTO events. He was followed by Padres third baseman Chase Headley (46), Yankees center fielder Curtis Granderson (45), Reds first baseman Joey Votto (43), and Brewers second baseman Rickie Weeks (43). Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp, off to a tremendous start, had the 9th highest TTO score (40) based on his mammoth contribution in the home run department: 11 dingers, 18 strikeouts, and 11 walks. Yes Matt Kemp’s HR:BB ratio stood at 1.00, which is as interesting a feat as Paul Byrd’s flirtation with more wins than walks a few seasons ago.

The inclusion of Kemp among the leaders in TTO is interesting in itself. Along with Joey Votto, Kemp is a player who can hit for a high batting average, a slightly different profile from the hulking stereotype with a good batting eye. Kemp has a career .297 batting average, including a .324 mark last year. Yet, as a player who struck out at last 139 times in each of the last four seasons, and walked 74 times in 2011 (although his previous high was just 53), Kemp’s power and K potential make him at least a two true outcome player.

For now, Adam Dunn can feel like he has righted the ship. The strikeouts will decrease unless he goes on to crush the existing season strikeout records. The walks are there. The power has returned. 

Lester Hit Hard, Rangers Practice Home Run Derby Cruising to 18-3 Victory

Jon Lester has been one of the most consistent pitchers for the Red Sox the past few seasons. The past two years have brought Opening Day honors to the lefty. While the team was off to a slow start, Lester turned in two solid outings, each good enough to deserve the win under normal circumstances. That Jon Lester did not take the mound against the Rangers. The Lester who did had trouble locating his pitches and finding the strike zone. By the third inning, Lester would give way to the bullpen and the damage would really start to accumulate as the Rangers scored 18 runs, including six home runs on the way to their fifth straight win.

The Rangers, one of the strongest offensive clubs in the American League, went to work early with leadoff man Ian Kinsler getting a hit to start the game. Lester would limit first inning damage to hits and watch Dustin Pedroia’s laser show in the bottom of the inning put his team up 2-0 over Colby Lewis. That would be about it for good news.

The Rangers would score 4 runs in the second inning and 3 more in the third, chasing Lester from the game. Scott Atchison allowed two baserunners of Lester’s to score and one of his own in the third inning, but went on to pitch three more clean frames and, along with Matt Albers, keeping the score at a reasonably close 8-2 through the seventh inning.

Mark Melancon would change all of that. In an effort that makes Alfredo Aceves’ first appearance look downright brilliant, Melancon faced six batters in the eighth inning and failed to record an out. What he did do was allow towering home runs to Josh Hamilton, Adrian Beltre, and Nelson Cruz as part of an 8-run eighth for Texas. ESPN reports that “Melancon is just the 8th pitcher in last 90 years to allow 3 HR without recording an out.” Not quite the history the Red Sox wanted to celebrate at Fenway Park this week.

Adrian Gonzalez would chip in with a home run of his own in the bottom of the inning but that was the only sign of the Red Sox bats since Dustin Pedroia’s blast many innings earlier. To add final insult to injury, Mike Napoli added a two-run shot in the ninth off Vincente Padilla, who filled the role usually occupied by a position player in these types of blowouts.

Sox Stud of the Game: Dustin Pedroia

Laser show. La luna. It doesn’t matter. The second baseman hits the ball, catches it, and defends Kevin Youkilis in a single bound.

Sox Dud of the Game: Jon Lester

Lester didn’t have his best stuff tonight and against a powerful Rangers lineup it came back to bite him. Hard.

Game Notes:

W: Colby Lewis (2-0) L: Jon Lester (0-2)

The performance of Lewis lost in this story. Striking out seven while walking one and allowing just two runs to score early in the game, Lewis set the tone for the Rangers and the bats helped him to sail.

Joel Zumaya to have Tommy John Surgery, Done for 2012

Another year, another setback for Joel Zumaya. The flame throwing reliever will undergo Tommy John surgery and miss a second consecutive season due to injury.

Zumaya has been the subject of conversation every year since his spectacular 2006 season. Making his major league debut, Zumaya struck out 97 batters in just 83.1 innings. It would take him nearly three seasons to to record his next 83 innings.

As the injuries piled up, Zumaya’s strikeout rate of 10.5/9 in 2006 fell to just 8.0/9 in 2010, the last time he appeared in a Tigers uniform.

Signing on this year with AL Central rivals, the Minnesota Twins, Zumaya was not in line to close as he had been in Detroit, but was simply another cog in the bullpen machine.

Until his reemergence, if ever, Aroldis Chapman will have to fill the role of “I can’t believe he threw that hard” for radar gun watchers.