This is best kind of dilemma a team can have: two productive players, both playing third base, fighting for playing time.
Some of the ways the Red Sox could keep Middlebrooks in the lineup may seem unorthodox, but Middlebrooks has forced the Red Sox's hand in this situation by becoming a spark plug for Boston since being called up from Triple-A Pawtucket on May 2.
In 18 games, Middlebrooks has hit .301, with five home runs and 16 RBI.
Middlebrooks isn’t just hitting major league pitching, he’s hitting elite major league pitching. He went 1-for-3 with a double against Philadelphia Phillies' ace Cliff Lee on Sunday. He also scored a run.
He's shown no signs of letting up. Last night, against the Baltimore Orioles, Middlebrooks went 3-for-5 with an RBI.
You simply can’t take that kind of production out of any lineup.
But Youkilis is set to return.
According to ESPN, Youkilis could rejoin the Red Sox as early as tonight against the Baltimore Orioles.
Youkilis is a career .288 hitter with a career on-base percentage of .389. He is competent fielding first or third base and has the ability to wear out starting pitchers.
Youkilis is always among the lead leaders in pitches per plate appearance and has seen an average of 4.30 pitches per plate appearance in his career. For comparison’s sake, 2012’s leader, Adam Dunn, sees 4.44 pitches per plate appearance (ESPN).
Again, it’s difficult to sit that kind of production.
Trade rumors involving Youkilis have been running rampant ever since Middlebrooks was called up.
If the Red Sox are serious about trading Youkilis, they must showcase him to the rest of the league to prove he can be productive and is truly over his back problems.
Sitting Middlebrooks for an extended period of time or sending him back down to Pawtucket should be completely off the table by now.
If Boston does not ultimately trade Youkilis, he is still a valuable commodity for the Red Sox.
Although it won’t be easy, the Red Sox should think outside the box in this Middlebrooks/Youkilis playing time situation.
Here are five possible scenarios for keeping Youkilis and Middlebrooks in the lineup.
Scenario No. 1
A simple platoon of Youkilis and Middlebrooks at third. This would be the easiest but most frustrating solution to the playing time problem. It would effectively keep Middlebrooks in the majors and provide playing time for both players.
But it would make Youkilis a much less intriguing player as trade bait for other teams.
Youkilis must be a full-time player when he returns to prove to possible trade partners that he can handle the everyday rigors of playing third base.
This scenario would also keep Middlebrooks’ bat out of the lineup far too often.
The Red Sox may start with the platoon strategy at third, but it’s not a long-term solution to the problem.
Scenario No. 2
In this scenario, Adrian Gonzalez plays right field, Youkilis plays first base, David Ortiz serves as the DH and Middlebrooks continues to play third base.
This would obviously be a short-term solution as the Red Sox search for a trading partner for Youkilis.
The biggest concern in this scenario is Gonzalez.
The Red Sox would be moving a Gold Glove first baseman to the outfield. This scenario is becoming more likely as Boston's outfielders keep dropping like flies.
This scenario keeps Middlebrooks and Ortiz in their comfort zones and puts Youkilis back at a position he is very familiar with.
Youkilis has played 582 games at first base and has shown a tremendous ability to switch between third base and first with relative ease.
Scenario No. 3
Middlebrooks plays the outfield, Youkilis plays third, Gonzalez plays first and Ortiz stays as the DH.
The biggest concern with this scenario is Middlebrooks.
He has never played the outfield as a professional. In 375 games in the minors, he only played third base.
How should the Red Sox solve the Middlebrooks / Youkilis playing time issue?
But Valentine hasn’t completely ruled out using Middlebrooks in the outfield:
"It's been tossed around in some quarters. It hasn't been a tabled discussion yet, so I don't think it even has to enter his domain. That being said, I think he's a pretty––again small sample––but my being around him is he's a pretty mature baseball guy. He's not going to be flustered by a lot of things. He's more fleet. He runs a little better than a lot of third basemen, which might give him a little upside. It's just a little different." (NESN)
This scenario keeps Middlebrooks and Youkilis in the lineup while only affecting the rookie. If Middlebrooks proves to be even average in the outfield, the Red Sox may have just the solution they’re looking for.
Scenario No. 4
Youkilis plays the outfield and Middlebrooks stays at third.
Youkilis does have some experience in the outfield. He has played 22 games in the outfield for the Red Sox over the past nine seasons and proved to be serviceable.
This scenario is intriguing because Youkilis would be the only one playing a position he’s not completely unfamiliar with.
The downside is Youkilis is not as athletic as Middlebrooks and has a recent history of lower back problems.
The Red Sox will most likely use a combination of all scenarios to keep Youkilis and Middlebrooks in the lineup to maximize the production of both players.
It’s not often a team can showcase a high-quality veteran like Youkilis while at the same time effectively utilize a young prospect like Middlebrooks.
With Youkilis worth as much as the Red Sox allow him to be and Middlebrooks touted as the third baseman of the future, the Red Sox are in a situation where they cannot allow either player to stay on the bench for any extended period of time.
The solutions to the problem may be difficult, but the Red Sox will have to be bold with their lineup to keep Youkilis in the spotlight and keep Middlebrooks' hot bat from turning cold on the bench.