Bobby Valentine tried different ways to keep Middlebrooks and Youkilis in the lineup at the same time, including placing Adrian Gonzalez, his Gold Glove first basemen, in right field.
It became clear, though, that every tweak in the lineup only provided a new problem. The ultimate solution was to trade Youkilis to the Chicago White Sox, thus clearing the way for Middlebrooks to take over full-time at third.
Although Middlebrooks’ elite play forced GM’s Ben Cherington’s hand in this situation, there are 10 real ways the Youkilis trade can come back to haunt the Red Sox.
Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com
Even though Middlebrooks is young, nagging injuries are part of baseball. Youkilis provided amazing infield depth for the Red Sox. It may have been difficult for Valentine to juggle his lineup every night, but it was nice to have the security Youkilis provided.
If Middlebrooks goes down for an extended period of time, the 2012 season is cooked.
True, this could be said about any number of players on the Red Sox roster. But the Red Sox actually had an emergency plan ready to go when Youkilis was still around.
We’re actually seeing this scenario play out right now. Middlebrooks strained his left hamstring against the Seattle Mariners on July 1 and has been in a sort of limbo state since he has neither played nor gone on the DL.
If Middlebrooks should go down with an injury, there is no true backup who could even come close to matching his production. Trading Youkilis, in effect, placed the success of the season square on Middlebrooks’ shoulders.
Youkilis provided a nice security blanket for Middlebrooks. Nothing was really expected out of Middlebrooks when he was first called up. He could simply play his game with the knowledge that a veteran was waiting in the wings.
If he failed, he failed. Fans would not have thought any less of Middlebrooks. He really wasn’t supposed to be up in Boston on a regular basis until next year anyway.
That security blanket is now gone. The job belongs to Middlebrooks. The tepid hope fans had of Middlebrooks as a rookie prospect has morphed into a monster of expectation.
During the first game after Youkilis was traded, Middlebrooks made an error at third. The Fenway fans let him hear it. Cries of “Youuuk!” could be heard throughout Fenway Park.
That was his baptism into the Church of Fenway.
Being capable of handling the pressures of Boston is significant to a rookie’s success. Ryan Kalish addressed this issue when he told Rod Bradford of WEEI:
I feel like the biggest adjustment is getting used to the atmosphere. The game never changes. Obviously the players are better and you have to make minor adjustments here and there, but it's about being able to handle the pressures of Boston. Obviously he's doing a really good job of slowing the game down, because that's something that can catch up to you.
If he cannot handle the pressure and eventually buckles, the Red Sox may just lose their rookie star for the year. Mentally losing Middlebrooks would haunt the Red Sox and fans all season.
There is the distinct possibility, or perhaps certainty, that Middlebrooks comes back down to earth after his meteoric rise from Triple-A Pawtucket to now. For a rookie whose impact was supposed to be felt next season, his numbers are great.
In 48 games this season, he is batting .298, with nine home runs and 37 RBI. He has tacked on 11 doubles and scored 25 runs.
The .298 average looks great on paper but is actually a little worrisome. It was as recent as June 23 that he was hitting .331.
Players slump. It is just a fact of baseball. It’s how players handle their slumps that determine how long they last.
Look no further than Bryce Harper. Perhaps the most hyped prospect in baseball recently had an 11-game stretch where he went 8-for-43. The difference is Harper did not take the job of a beloved veteran with two World Series rings.
Middlebrooks himself is in a mini-slump right now. Since June 24 (eight games), he has hit .138. He only has four hits and has struck out seven times.
There is pressure on Middlebrooks not to fall into any prolonged slumps. If Middlebrooks presses too hard, a slump is a distinct possibility. With Youkilis out of the picture, a prolonged slump from Middlebrooks could sink the Red Sox this season.
Youkilis was a very intense guy at the plate and in the clubhouse. He also provided the veteran presence of a guy who had been to a World Series.
To put it simply, Youkilis knew how to win.
Fans should not forget Youkilis was a three-time All-Star and Gold Glove Winner and had an impressive WAR (Wins Above Replacement) of 3.7 last season. Because of the rough start he has had this season, it's easy to forget he was an All-Star reserve in 2011.
In addition to personal accomplishments, Youkilis thrived in postseason play.
In 29 postseason games, Youkilis hit .306, with six home runs and 17 RBI. His 2007 ALCS was particularly impressive. In that series against the Cleveland Indians, Youkilis hit .500, with three home runs and seven RBI. His OPS was 1.504.
Granted, that was the 28-year-old version of Youkilis. But the Red Sox still had to give away a guy who has significant playoff experience. If the Red Sox do find a way to make the playoffs this year, one of their most seasoned veterans will not be there to help lead the way.
Part of Youkilis’ value was his ability to seamlessly transition from third base to first base. This made it possible to give Gonzalez days off without hurting the first base position.
Youkilis won the Gold Glove at first base in 2007 and was adept at digging balls out of the dirt. In 596 games at first, Youkilis compiled a .997 fielding percentage.
While playing third, Youkilis had a .966 fielding percentage in 367 games. This exceeds the .954 league average for third basemen over the same time period.
While Youkilis was known for getting on base, the Red Sox may ultimately miss the flexibility he gave managers when filling out the lineup for the day.
Middlebrooks has yet to show the same confidence in the field that Youkilis brought to the table. In his young career, just 45 games, he has committed seven errors. Middlebrooks has the superior bat at this point in their respective careers, but Youkilis has the superior glove.
When the Red Sox sent Youkilis to the White Sox, they sent him to a playoff contender—and they made that contender a stronger team. If Chicago does not win the AL Central, they could easily fall into a race with the Red Sox for a wild-card spot.
Their records are almost identical (as of July 4):
Red Sox: 42-39
White Sox: 43-37
Make no mistake, the Red Sox strengthened the White Sox’ weakest position. Before Youkilis, Chicago was relying on Orlando Husdon and Brent Morel to get the job done at third. Hudson is batting .183 this season. Morel is batting .177. Combined, they have one home run and 16 RBI.
Youkilis is a huge upgrade at third for Chicago. He also gives them depth at first base.
It may not be a dramatic home run off the bat of Youkilis that ultimately sinks the Red Sox. It could just be a slow accumulation of wins Youkilis should help provide Chicago that inches them past the Red Sox for a playoff spot.
One thing Youkilis could do, and still can do, is get on base. Whether that came in the form of a base hit or a walk, he found a way to get on base. His nickname "The Greek God of Walks" may seem overused by now—but it is a nickname he deserves.
Youkilis walked 494 times in his Red Sox career. His .4133 on base percentage in 2009 was the sixth highest in all of baseball. In his 4,001 plate appearances, he has walked 12.4 percent of the time. His career .388 on base percentage is the 11th best in the history of the Red Sox.
To put those numbers in their simplest form: Youkilis was a master of getting on base.
It is far too early to compare Youkilis and Middlebrooks in this category. But it is safe to say Middlebrooks will not be the walk artist we saw in Youkilis.
If you needed a baserunner, Youkilis was the guy you wanted at the plate.
Since a walk isn't all that exciting or sexy, it can often go overlooked. But Youkilis made the walk an art form—an art form that will be missed on Yawkey Way.
Although Middlebrooks projects to be, and really already is, a middle-of-the-order bat, the Red Sox also traded away a proven middle-of-the-order bat.
In his 361 career games batting clean up, Youkilis hit .296, with 60 home runs and 254 RBI. He was also able to draw 212 walks batting fourth. Youkilis was a guy who thrived in the power spot in the lineup.
Youkilis also had value batting third for the Red Sox. In 409 plate appearances out of the three hole, Youkilis hit .302 and had an impressive on-base percentage of .396. That kind of on-base percentage is exactly what you want to see out of your No. 3 hitter.
Middlebrooks may prove to be adept hitting third or fourth in the Red Sox lineup, but the Red Sox had to give away a proven commodity in Youkilis to find out.
If you believe in clutch hitting, you believe in Youkilis.
Youkilis excels in every clutch hitting category you can imagine.
With two outs and runners in scoring positing, Youkilis is hitting .308, with 17 home runs and 168 RBI. He has an impressive OPS of .977 in this category. In short, Youkilis responds well to pressure situations.
In tie games, Youkilis has 32 home runs and 120 RBI.
In games where his team is trailing by one run, Youkilis has 59 home runs and 243 RBI.
In games where his team is within two runs, Youkilis is batting .280, with 79 home runs and 336 RBI.
When the game is on the line, Youkilis is a guy you want at the plate. But he no longer will be clutch for the Red Sox. A clutch-hitting Youkilis for the White Sox could come back to haunt the Red Sox.
Let us allow for a little fantasy here. Or for a Red Sox fan, let's call it horror.
Imagine the Red Sox and White Sox battling neck and neck for a playoff spot from this point on. Imagine yourself checking the scores of White Sox games every night to find out how close the playoff race really is.
Now imagine the White Sox and Red Sox find themselves in a one-game playoff scenario. If you think about it, it's really not that far fetched. The game may take place on a hot and humid Boston night. Bobby Valentine's boys have fought hard all season, through the injuries, through the drama, just to be here.
A pitching duel ensues. The score remains 0-0 after eight. Youkilis comes to the plate. He digs in against a healthy Andrew Bailey and sends a moonshot into the Monster seats. Chicago goes on to win the game 1-0. Youkilis is doused with champagne in the Red Sox visitor clubhouse.
The player the Red Sox traded away literally ends their season.
A new chapter in Red Sox history is written. Bucky Dent is forgotten. We now have Kevin bleepin' Youkilis.