I asked two general managers Thursday about Kevin Youkilis.
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The first said that he would need to see Youkilis play for an extended period before determining whether his team had interest, citing Youkilis’ declining offense, defense and health.
The second said he would not claim Youkilis and the approximately $9 million remaining on his contract if the Red Sox released the veteran tomorrow, calling it “a boatload” of money for a player who is 33 and losing mobility.
Okayyyy . . .
If the Red Sox want to trade Youkilis — an idea that suddenly looks less compelling than it did a week ago — getting from Point A to Point B could be tricky, and potentially messy.
The best-case scenario is for Youkilis to replace slumping rookie Will Middlebrooks and play like the Youk of old, helping the Red Sox climb into contention and restoring his trade value.
The worst-case scenario?
For Youkilis to come off the disabled list and continue to struggle both offensively and defensively, diminishing his trade and damaging the Sox in the process.
Yes, the stakes are that high.
The Sox visit Philadelphia this weekend (MLB on Fox, Saturday, 7:10 p.m. ET). Youkilis will play third base through Monday on his rehabilitation assignment at Triple-A Pawtucket, then rejoin the Sox in Baltimore on Tuesday to be re-evaluated.
Third base is the Red Sox’s latest hot spot, a potential source of friction on multiple fronts:
The Youk vs. the Rook.
Manager Bobby Valentine vs. general manager Ben Cherington.
The Red Sox vs. their recent past.
I’m not ready to count out Youkilis, who was a fine hitter as recently as last season, batting .275/.389/.499 through Aug. 3 before getting compromised by injuries.
I’m also not ready to count in Middlebrooks, who — after hitting four home runs in his first 10 games — is in 2-for-16 and 6-for-36 slumps. In 61 plate appearances, he’s batting .259/.295/.552, with 20 strikeouts and three walks.
The way things currently look, Youkilis is coming back just at the right time. But if Middlebrooks, 23 regains his mojo at Citizens Bank Park this weekend — and it won’t be easy for him against Phillies starters Cole Hamels, Joe Blanton and Cliff Lee — the debate will flare anew.
Valentine, in his first year as manager, seemingly made his feelings known early in the season when he said that Youkilis was not “as physically or emotionally into the game as he has been in the past.”
Some gave Valentine the benefit of the doubt, saying he was only making an innocent observation about a struggling player.
I didn’t buy it then, and I don’t buy it now.
According to one rival executive, Valentine wanted Youkilis out as far back as spring training, viewing him as a liability. Youkilis surely can sense that he is not wanted. And Youkilis surely wants to prove Valentine wrong, whether it’s with the Red Sox or some other club.
Cherington, the first-year GM, is caught in the middle — allowing Valentine to bury Youkilis would leave the Sox with a declining asset. That possibility likely was the motivation behind Cherington’s statement that Youkilis would not lose his job due to an injury. At the time, Red Sox fans were swooning over Middlebrooks. But Cherington was only being pragmatic — and fair.
Could it be that Middlebrooks needs more time in the minors? Well, he had a stunning 1.057 OPS with Pawtucket at the time of his promotion, but has only 160 plate appearances at Triple A over the past two seasons. It’s not as if a return to Triple A would harm him.
Particularly when such a move would buy the Red Sox time.
Trying Middlebrooks in the outfield would be silly — he’s the Red Sox’s third baseman of the future, a potential Scott Rolen. Youkilis also cannot switch positions, not with Adrian Gonzalez entrenched at first and David Ortiz at DH. So, the only real choice is to play this out.
If Youkilis performs well, the Sox could either keep him or trade him. The play of Middlebrooks and the team’s position in the standings would figure into the equation. And keep in mind, Youkilis could get hurt again.
I wouldn’t be surprised if this saga ended with the Red Sox simply declining Youkilis’ $13 million option at the end of the season, enabling him to become a free agent and creating a permanent opening for Middlebrooks.
But a trade before July 31 also could be intriguing, particularly if it could help the Sox address their pitching needs.
Youkilis’ hometown Reds expect Rolen to return from his latest shoulder problem, but let’s see where Rolen is a month from now.
The Phillies might want Youkilis, depending upon the respective conditions of second baseman Chase Utley and third baseman Placido Polanco.
The Dodgers could use Youkilis at first or third, and if the Red Sox were willing to trade within the AL, Youkilis could be a fit for the Indians at first, the White Sox and Angels at third and the Orioles at both positions.
Youkilis needs to rejoin the Sox before any of the above can happen, if any of it even happens at all. But Middlebrooks’ slump should change everyone’s perspective, if only for the moment.
Situations in baseball evolve rapidly, often unexpectedly. Things are not always as obvious as they appear.