The 33-year-old third baseman has been banged up each season starting in 2010, limiting his ability in the field and eroding the plate discipline that made him a household name. And with the thundering arrival of Will Middlebrooks, many have called for the Red Sox’s third baseman of the future to take Youkilis’s place as the third baseman of the present, too.
Such talk is understandable in a season where fans and team have looked for a jolt of energy, but it is premature.
Youkilis has earned every right to win back his place as Boston’s starting third baseman, and the Red Sox would be wise to grant it to him as he comes off the DL for tonight’s game at Baltimore.
The following is why.
One of the factors that has allowed Middlebrooks to get off to such a hot start is having an All-Star third baseman show him the ropes.
And for all his frustration with being banged up again, Youkilis has been one of Middlebrooks’s biggest supporters.
There he was on May 6 smiling and patting Middlebrooks on the head after the rookie hit a grand slam for his first major-league home run. Before that, Youkilis was gracious with his time in spring training mentoring Middlebrooks—something the latter is extremely grateful for.
And the Red Sox would be wise to maintain this budding relationship. Who better than Youkilis to keep Middlebrooks focused when he hits a rough patch (as he did May 12–20, when he struck out 16 times in 34 plate appearances)?
For all the potential he’s displayed in his first 18 big-league games, Middlebrooks doesn’t know everything. He would benefit from watching more of Youkilis going through his daily routine—either in Boston or from afar in Pawtucket.
Youkilis’s start to 2012 has been an ugly one. He’s hitting just .219 with two home runs and nine RBI and has struck out in 20 of 64 plate appearances.
As unsightly as those numbers are, it’s too limited a sample size to project the rest of his 2012 will be a poor one. Just last season at the All-Star break, Youk was third in the majors in doubles (26), fourth in OBP (.399), sixth in RBI (63), seventh in OPS (.911) and ninth in walks (49).
Youkilis’s struggles have been further magnified by how the rest of the team limped out of the gate. It’s only natural fans and pundits would start partially attributing the latter to the former, even if it’s not entirely true.
When players and fans take a step back and breathe, they’ll realize it’s been only 18 games. Starting tonight, there are 120 games left for Youkilis to get healthy and become the force folks are used to seeing.
Of course, if Middlebrooks continues to play at a higher level than Youkilis between now and the trade deadline, Youkilis will be expendable.
However, in order to move Youkilis in exchange for some prospects or for a component to their stretch drive, the Red Sox have to showcase him.
The more time Youkilis spends on the bench, the less comfortable teams will feel going after him. Why pursue what they perceive to be damaged goods when other seemingly healthier players are on the market?
If Youkilis is in the lineup every day, the idea that he’s too banged up to contribute—either to Boston or another team—will fall by the wayside. And with Cody Ross headed to the DL for six to eight weeks, the Red Sox could put him in without having to take out (or send down) Middlebrooks.
First there was Bobby Valentine’s comments from earlier in the season when he said Youkilis was not as “physically or emotionally into the game as he has been in the past.” (Valentine issued a public apology one day later.)
Now there’s the report from FOX’s Ken Rosenthal that Valentine has wanted Youkilis out as far back as spring training.
Youkilis is a proud player, one of only two current members of the Red Sox (along with David Ortiz) with the team for both their 2004 and ’07 World Series titles. The idea that Boston’s new manager has counted him out since he arrived has to irk Youkilis to no end.
It could also light a spark under Youkilis to play the rest of this season with his hair on fire (not to condone what Valentine said back in April). Playing angry is part of Youk’s persona. And now that Youkilis has something to be angry about, Boston would be wise to channel that on the field.
In Boston, Youkilis has been a three-time All-Star and a two-time World Series champion. And his gritty style of play has made him a cult figure ever since he became a lineup regular.
Youkilis has made too much of an impact during his Red Sox career to be kicked to the curb before his current contract expires. He deserves to play out his tenure in Boston based on the body of work he has already accumulated.
It would be wrong to perceive this as nostalgia getting the better of the Red Sox. They would be appropriate rewarding a player for his efforts while allowing him to pass the torch to his successor in a manner that leaves everyone happy.
Considering all the unwanted drama that has characterized the Red Sox in the last month of 2011 and the first two months of 2012, they could use some good karma.