The Boston Red Sox have a lot of problems. Their starting pitcher is the second-worst in the major leagues. They have almost $100 million on the disabled list. Their $20 million first baseman is in a big-time funk at the plate.
Now they have another at third base. Namely, if Will Middlebrooks continues to perform well at the plate, what do you do with Kevin Youkilis when he comes back from the disabled list?
Middlebrooks has been spectacular. He's only the fourth player since 1918 to have an extra base hit in each of his first four games. He has three home runs and nine RBI in 19 at bats. Of course, that's a very small sample size, but even if he slows down a lot, he might still be better than Youk, who is beaten up and a shadow of his former self.
Youkilis was a disaster in the second half of last season, batting below the Mendoza line in his last 37 games. He has a .219/.292/.344 line in 18 games this year, with 20 strikeouts and only five walks in 18 games.
In stark contrast, Middlebrooks was having a monster year with Pawtucket (.333/.380/.677, nine home runs) and has looked mightily impressive.
There will be some bumps in the road for Middlebrooks. He's had a few bad plays defensively and didn't run out a fly ball over the weekend, ending up on first rather than second. But you'll get that with young players.
He is not Josh Reddick, who batted .400 for a few weeks before completely falling apart and hitting .240 the rest of the way. Middlebrooks is much more in the Dustin Pedroia class of minor league in that he has learned how to play the game and improved at each level.
What should the Red Sox do at third base?
Even if you want Middlebrooks back at Triple-A because you don't believe he's ready, what about next year?
Youkilis has a team option for 2013, but at $13 million, the Sox aren't going to pick that up. In all likelihood, this will be Youk's last season in Boston unless he agrees to a bench role and a very team-friendly contract.
You don't have Middlebrooks tearing the cover off the ball in Triple-A and still sign a full-time 3B to a big contract, so the youngster will probably be starting at the hot corner next season.
Why not make that move now?
Well, there are a few problems.
First, no GM is going to trade for a guy sight unseen. As much as Ben Cherington would love to take Youk off the DL and ship him out, other general managers will need to see what he can do and if he's actually healthy. A rehab stint in the minors isn't going to be enough, so he has to play at the majors.
He can only play three positions, and two of them are taken. He was a Gold Glove first baseman, but you're not moving or sitting Adrian Gonzalez. As he's a bit beaten up, making him the designated hitter makes sense, but David Ortiz has been one of the best hitters in baseball so far.
The only place you can play him is third base, as good as Middlebrooks might be. You could have him on the bench, a role Mike Lowell filled very well a few years ago. However, would Youk be willing to do that? Or would he be able to perform?
What will likely happen is Youkilis comes back and plays third full-time and Middlebrooks gets optioned back to Pawtucket. That will be a shame because the 23-year-old could be the future for this team, and right now, he's the better player of the two.