The Greek God of Walks may be have drawn his final free pass as the everyday third baseman – or first baseman – of the Boston Red Sox.
It’s not set in stone, but right now, it looks like the man that Jonah Hill salivated over in Moneyball might be spending a lot more time just hoping to again walk into a batter’s box, while everybody else in New England and beyond salivates over his replacement at the hot corner.
It happened suddenly, but the Kevin Youkilis that we all knew and loved is gone, and those .950 OPS numbers aren’t ever coming back. With his most recent trip to the disabled list this week, due to a lingering back problem, it’s looking more and more likely that Youk’s days as a card carrying member of Red Sox Nation are numbered.
And as we’ve seen, the Sox aren’t too frightened of revoking that membership when they feel the time is right (just ask Jason Bay, Marco Scutaro and Manny Ramirez). With Youkilis’ play and injury history over the past three seasons, the right time to move on is as close to being here as it ever has been – and that includes when they were entertaining trade offers for him in the off-season.
It just makes too much sense right now. He’s on the DL already this season, and the calendar just flipped over to May. He missed 42 games last year and 60 the year before that. He hasn’t played a full season since 2009, and even that year he only played 136 games. At 33 years old, he’s not getting any younger, and his health isn’t exactly improving as he approaches his baseball twilight years.
But it goes so much deeper than that. His act has worn thin in the clubhouse, ranging from when he called out Jacoby Ellsbury for being soft in 2010 to his general standoffishness towards teammates. He’s had more than one reported incident in the dugout when people tell him to calm down, and instead he goes drastically in the other direction. Outside of baseball, in public, he barely acknowledges fans when they approach him.
On a team that has enough headaches to worry about and enough prima donnas to cater to on a daily basis, Youkilis’ act has worn the thinnest. Sure, he wasn’t drinking beer and eating chicken with the pitching staff in the clubhouse, but at least those guys enjoyed each other’s company. It sure seems like nobody on the field – for either team – enjoys spending time with Youkilis.
And if that were the only problem, and the Red Sox weren’t a team currently badly an image problem while struggling to compete in the toughest division in baseball despite having the second-highest pay roll in the majors, it might all work out just fine in the long run. If there was upside, even with all the injuries, the Sox would weigh the potential risk of him fighting Bobby Valentine in the showers versus the reward of him hitting 30 home runs and drive in 100 RBI, and choose the latter. Production usually wins out.
Unfortunately, Kevin Youkilis isn’t a productive hitter anymore. From 2007-09, he was one of the best hitters in the American League, if not all of baseball. He came in third in the MVP voting in 2007, sixth in 2008 and he hit .307 in 2009. In all three of those years, his OPS was .958 or better, he twice hit a least 27 home runs and he was walking almost 80 times a year. He was the perfect sabermetrics guy – a player who could hit for power and average, while still getting on base even more than his already high batting average suggested.
Now, Kevin Youkilis is a shadow of that hitter. The Greek God of Walks has been replaced by the Greek God of Angrily Striking Out and Then Going on the DL. In 2010, he was good, but he couldn’t stay on the field. In 2011, he tried to battle through injuries and stay on the field, and he had nothing to offer. He hit .258 with 17 home runs and 80 RBI, and his OPS was down to .833. Keep in mind, he also played poor defense (remember the run prevention movement from a couple year’s back?) and routinely pissed everybody off.
That pretty much covers all his current shortcomings, but there’s another factor at play as to why his days of playing a major role in Boston are about to fade to black: Will Middlebrooks.
Middlebrooks is the No. 1 prospect in a thin Red Sox farm system, and he happens to play Youk’s position, third base. He’s 23 years old, and he’s torn through the minors faster than Youkilis tore through the goodwill he built up from 2007-09. This year, Middlebrooks has hit nine home runs and driven in 27 runs at Triple-A Pawtucket in just 23 games. It was only a matter of time before he forced the Red Sox hand and made them bring him up to the big club.
With Youkilis hitting .219 on the season, and winding up on the DL for the 13th time in a 3-year stretch, the Sox never had to be forced into anything. They could revel their hand on their own terms. On Wednesday, Middlebrooks called up and brought to Boston, where he started at third base and batted eighth. He showed why he was considered an impressive fielder in the minors with a smooth play in the top of the first inning, and then he went to work at the plate. In his Major League debut, playing in Boston, Middlebrooks went 2-for-3 with a walk, a double and a stolen base. And it helps that he looks the part. He’s 6-foot-4, 225 pounds and is built like a third baseman should be. Think Alex Rodriguez, in the mid-to-late 90′s (and no, I’m not comparing the two as players or prospects, just their body types).
He’s also taken the normal path to the majors. He was a fifth round pick, hit at every level and is now ready to take a strangehold on a starting spot at a young age. Contrast that with Youkilis, who was an eighth round pick and didn’t start becoming a regular until he was 27. His batting stance was, and still is, highly unconventional, and he just sort of cropped up as a surprising star. Really, he was an anomaly. That’s why, after just three strong seasons, he broke down. He was already late to the big leagues, making his window to succeed smaller than almost everybody else’s
This isn’t even really an indictment of Youkilis – besides his over-the-top, flammable personality Rather, it’s more of a statement of facts about where his career currently is, as well as a nod to the potential the Middlebrooks has. Youk did his job, but it was never going to be permanent. He played first base when the team asked him to, even though his natural position was third, and then he moved back across the diamond to third when they asked him to do that. Both of those moves were selfless, and he deserves credit for being open to the moves. But the downside was that his body got even more worn down from the move back to third – which, not coincidentally – began in 2009 and 2010 and was official in 2011.
Youk is also in the last year of his contract. The team has an option at $13 million for next season, and the only way that gets picked up is if Middlebrooks gets severely hurt (knock on wood) and Youkilis starts having bi-monthly meetings with Dr. Anthony Galea. In other words, barring something relatively far-fetched, it’s not happening.
So that said, it makes sense to start the process now. Milk his injury, and make him take extra rehab stints in the minors. Don’t rush him back. There’s no need. The future of the team, obviously, lies with Middlebrooks. But so does the present.
As the Red Sox try to get themselves in line and prepare to stay in contention throughout a season that could crumble in a matter of weeks, hard decisions have to be made. If Middlebrooks can hit at all, and he plays his typical defense, then there’s no excuse not to have him manning third day-in and day-out.
Sorry Youk. You had a good run, and Tom Brady’s sister will still love you. As for me? I’ll miss the “YOOOUUUUK” chants, and I’ll miss all the oddities you brought to a baseball field. But, for a man who’s claim to fame was getting to ball four, your final walk in a Red Sox uniform should be to the top step of the dugout to watch your successor take the reins. It’s the end of the road.
Get more great sports analysis over at Extra Pine Tar.