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In the wake of the dramatic September collapse by the Boston Red Sox, a sea of changes has come in waves, one after another: manager Terry Francona is gone, general manager Theo Epstein has departed for Chicago, Ben Cherington was announced as the new GM, and John Lackey will undergo Tommy John surgery.
Amid these changes is speculation over what the Red Sox will do to avoid a repeat of their disastrous demise. Who will Cherington choose as Francona’s replacement? Should the Red Sox re-sign free agents David Ortiz and Jonathan Papelbon? Who will the Red Sox pursue in free agency this offseason? And most surprisingly of all, will the Red Sox decide to trade third baseman Kevin Youkilis?
According to WEEI columnist Alex Speier, sources within the Red Sox have responded to this particular vein of speculation by saying that the team is unlikely to ship Youkilis. But that hardly prevents us from asking: Should the Red Sox trade the Greek God of Walks?
The shortcomings of the September 2011 Red Sox were well-documented: a dearth of starting pitching. While the absence of Lackey and his 6.41 ERA for the 2012 season will hardly be missed, it does leave the Red Sox with only three slots filled for next season’s starting rotation as Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka continue to recover from Tommy John surgery.
Clearly, the farm system isn’t going to provide any viable solutions for 2012. Kyle Weiland made that abundantly clear.
The Red Sox could look to fill out their starting pitching in the free agent market. The market is noticeably thin this offseason when it comes to frontline starters, and it got even thinner on Monday (both literally and figuratively) when C.C. Sabathia and the New York Yankees agreed to a new five-year, $122 million contract. That leaves C.J. Wilson, ace of the American League Champion Texas Rangers, and less noteworthy names such as Mark Buerhle and Edwin Jackson, all of whom can be categorized with a single syllable – “Meh.”
That leaves the Red Sox with the choice of trading for a starting pitcher, and Youkilis could make sense as the centerpiece of such a deal, for a number of reasons.
Unless the Red Sox want to trade for Lackey 2.0, it takes value to get value. Youkilis would be a patient, middle of the order, power-hitting corner infielder with three All-Star appearances, including 2011. His contract is also still relatively affordable next year at $12 million.
Of all the Red Sox regulars, Youkilis is the most dispensable. He doesn’t constitute the heart of the Red Sox team, especially in the clubhouse. This year, Jackie MacMullan described him as “sour,” “cynical,” and a “detriment” to team chemistry. In 2010, Youkilis publicly called out teammate Jacoby Ellsbury for not spending time with the team when he was injured. You might say he regrets that one after Ellsbury took home Comeback Player of the Year honors.
Youkilis has not been the epitome of health these past two seasons, either. After playing in just 102 games in 2010, he followed that up by appearing in only 120 games in 2011, breaking down over the second half of the season to the point where he had to go on the disabled list. The plague of injuries this year coincided with his move to third base, a position he no longer seems suited to play with the body type he built before Adrian Gonzalez took over as the Red Sox first baseman. To boot, Youkilis will turn 33 in March.
While the Red Sox certainly need a starting pitcher, Youkilis is too rare a talent to simply trade away. Unless the Red Sox can retroactively resign Adrian Beltre or somehow convince the Tampa Bay Rays to release Evan Longoria, Youkilis’s production would be impossible to replace. Third basemen who hit for average, power, and maintain the sort of plate discipline the Red Sox desire are hard to come by. His numbers for the first half of the season were nothing short of spectacular, as he hit .285/.399/.512 with 13 home runs and 63 runs batted in. His OPS of .911 led all major league players at that position.
In fact, one could make the case that Youkilis’s absence in the middle of the lineup was just as (or nearly as) detrimental in September as the poor starting pitching. Without their right-handed cleanup hitter, the Red Sox lost the balance that made their lineup nearly unpitchable, instead juggling the batting order daily and trying to get away with Jed Lowrie or Ryan Lavarnway in the 4- and 5-holes. Youkilis may have easily helped the Red Sox scratch out the two more wins needed to make the 2011 playoffs – where, by the way, pitching hardly seemed to matter.
If anything, the debilitating September injuries and offseason surgery may motivate Youkilis to get in better shape to play third base every day. Youkilis’s agent, Joe Bick, discussed his plans for a new offseason workout regimen to focus on staying healthy on the field rather than hitting home runs. Bick said, “The idea for him this winter is for him to maintain and smooth things out, [get] more limber, that kind of thing. That’s the objective for the offseason.”
Even with their need for starting pitching, there is no way the Red Sox can trade Youkilis without essentially creating a black hole in the middle of the lineup. With highly-touted prospect Will Middlebrooks still one or two years away, a third baseman with a bat like Youkilis (and a sweet nickname like the Greek God of Walks) is too hard to find.
My gut reaction tells me to stockpile all the starting pitching in the world, but my reason tells me to hang on to Youkilis, who after all did help the Red Sox to the best record in the American League on Sept. 1.
Given the luck of the Red Sox, a trade would simply bring in another untested pitcher to teeter on the precipice of failure and martyrdom, looking down upon the corpse of poor John Lackey.
At least with Youkilis the Red Sox know what they are getting – consistently tough at-bats, an impassioned string of curses after every strikeout, someone who can handle playing in the Boston limelight, and, perhaps most importantly, an epic bald beard that can’t be matched.