Today In “Greek” History: Kevin Youkilis

Per @HighHeatStats on Twitter, the Kevin Youkilis era of the Boston Red Sox concluded one year ago today. It’s strange to look back and think about how much Youkilis was around for and how quickly he became irrelevant. 

When Kevin Youkilis was called up to the Red Sox in May of 2004,  Moneyball mania was in full swing. The Red Sox were coming off a disastrous 2003 ALCS and the batting champion, third baseman Bill Mueller, was on the disabled list. Youkilis was a savior, and excitement, and a bit of a worry because Mueller had made such an impression the previous season. I still remember I had a friend who was doing a summer semester in Greece and was freaking out when he got back that Youkilis had been called up.

Youkilis was around for both World Series runs, played in three All-Star Games, and showed Boston fans what he could do at first base and third base. You could even say “Youk knows third AND Youk knows first.”

Now that he’s back on the disabled list with back surgery, the end may be near for Youkilis. If so, he would finish with a career .281/.382/.478 line, 104 hit by pitches, and 539 walks.

 

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.

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.