Boston Red Sox

Boston Red Sox

Monday, June 25, 2012

Red Sox Made Wise Move in Trading Kevin Youkilis

As sad as it was for Red Sox fans to watch Youk go, it was time.

Kevin Youkilis will certainly be missed by Red Sox fans. But there is no doubt that the time had come to trade him. Will Middlebrooks could be the AL Rookie of the Year and he needs to play every day.

Youkilis, who could become a free agent at season's end, has missed extensive time in each of the last four seasons. The Red Sox held a one-year option at $13 million (with a $1 million buyout) for 2013, and they clearly had no intention of exercising it. One way or another, Youkilis was not going to be a member of the Red Sox next season.

At 33, Youkilis isn't aging well and appears to be in decline. Most scouts who've observed him have drawn the conclusion that, though he can still hit, he is now past his prime. This is clear from reports that the White Sox were the only club in the trade talks that didn't insist on the Red Sox picking up all of the remaining $6.6 million on Youkilis' 2012 contract, plus the buyout for next season.

It's a good bet that Youkilis can still be a productive hitter. But it appears that he has peaked and will never again be the player who posted consecutive seasons with an OPS of .950 or better from 2008 to 2010. Years of injuries have caught up to him and taken quite a toll. One has to be on the field to be productive.

Additionally, Youkilis has lost defensive range at third base and, at this point in his career, is best suited to play first. With the emergence of Will Middlebrooks (who leads AL rookies with 34 RBI) at third base, and with Adrian Gonzalez manning first, Youkilis no longer fit in Boston.

Youkilis was never the fastest, the strongest or the most graceful player on the team, or even at his position. But he always had great hand-eye coordination (as evidenced by his 20/11 vision) and terrific instincts. However, as his body has broken down in recent years, even those qualities couldn't make up for what Youkilis was losing physically.

Over parts of nine seasons with the Red Sox, Youkilis batted .286 with 133 HR, 563 RBI and .388 OBP. In that period, Youkilis won two World Series titles ('04 & '07), was a three-time All Star ('08, '09, '11) and was the Hank Aaron Award winner in 2008. That award is given annually to the players selected as the top hitter in each league, as voted on by baseball fans and members of the media.

The Red Sox drafted Youkilis in the eighth round of the 2001 amateur draft. He turned out to be the classic over-achiever. Despite not having a true athlete's body, Youkilis was able to wring every bit of potential from himself by sheer force of will.

Youkilis was called "roly-poly" by his high school coach, "pudgy" by his college coach, a "fat kid" by A's general manager Billy Beane, and a "thicker-bodied guy" by the Red Sox scout who recruited him.

However, Red Sox fans truly appreciate hard-working, dedicated ballplayers, regardless of their physical limitations. Youk was the quintessential "Dirt Dog"; a player whose grit and hustle always seemed to result in a dirty uniform.

In fact, Youkilis' hard-nosed style of play may have been his downfall. Due to assorted injuries, Youkilis has not played in more than 136 games for four consecutive seasons. That's nearly half his tenure in a Red Sox uniform. From 2009 to 2011, Youkilis averaged just 119 games per season.

Once again — due to injury, but also due to the emergence of Will Middlebrooks — Youkilis played in just 41 of a possible 72 games this season.

Even if Youkilis plays in every one of the White Sox remaining 90 games this season (which seems highly unlikely), he would ultimately play in a total of just 131 games this year. This trend will surely hurt his value on the free agent market this winter. But it's not the only red flag.

After posting a .258 batting average last season, Youkilis is batting just .225 with a .311 on base percentage this year. The latter is particularly troubling since Youkilis had previously posted an OBP of at least .400 in three seasons and of at least .390 in five seasons.

These are disturbing trends for a player who had been so consistent, and so good, from 2004 through 2010.

Youkilis was named to the Sporting News' list of the 50 greatest current players in baseball three times, ranking No. 36 on the list in 2009, No. 38 in 2010, and No. 35 in 2011.

Yes, as amazing as it seems, Youkilis was ranked the 35th-best player in baseball just one year ago; how far he has fallen since then.

Youkilis played for the Red Sox during a historic period of the team's history, in which they won at least 90 games six times in an eight-year stretch, spanning from 2004 to 2011. The Sox also qualified for the postseason five times during Youkilis' tenure, winning the World Series twice in that frame.

If not durable, Youkilis was indeed versatile, switching from third base to first in 2006 to accommodate the arrival of Mike Lowell. All Youkilis did was win a Gold Glove in 2007 and break Stuffy McInnis's club record of 120 consecutive games at first base without an error, set in 1921. Youkilis's streak at the end of the regular season was 190 games. He led the league with a perfect 1.000 fielding percentage, and an AL-record 1,079 error-less chances at first.

On April 2, 2008, on an unassisted game-ending play against the Oakland A's, Youkilis broke the Major League record for most consecutive error-less games by a first baseman, previously held by Steve Garvey, at 194 games. In his 205th game without an error on April 27, Youkilis also established a new major league record for first basemen, when he fielded his 1,701st consecutive chance without an error, passing the old mark of 1,700 set by Stuffy McInnis from 1921 to 1922. His streak, which started on July 4, 2006, was snapped at 238 games (2,002 fielding attempts) on June 7, 2008 against the Seattle Mariners.

Youkilis may have three or four more productive years left in him, but he'll have to switch back to first base to make the most of them. The grind of playing third every day will wear him down and his lack of range will result in routine plays not being made.

At some point after his retirement, it's a safe bet that Youkilis will be inducted into the Red Sox Hall of Fame. He was a beloved player who excelled during a very special era of winning baseball in Boston.

Youkilis was also a very productive member of the Red Sox, as his statistics will attest:

His .388 OBP is 11th in club history; his .875 OPS is 11th; his .487 slugging percentage is 12th; his 133 home runs are 18th (tied with Trot Nixon); his 239 doubles are 19th; his 564 RBI are 21st; his 594 runs are 25th; his 961 hits are 31st; and his .286 average is 32nd amongst Red Sox players.

But let's be clear; none of Youkilis' stats are top-ten in Red Sox history, and it took him nine seasons to compile them. He doesn't have another nine years in him and even if he did, he wouldn't double his previous production. The point is, the Red Sox had Youkilis during his prime years, his most productive years. He gave the Sox everything he had to give and they got a relative bargain in the process.

Youkilis' $424,500 salary in 2007 was the fourth-lowest on the club. And he earned $3 million in 2008, a year in which he finished third on the AL MVP ballot. The Sox got a lot of value for the cost. Youkilis didn't sign his first big contract — a four-year, $41.25 million deal — until 2009. Unfortunately, that's when the injuries began to mount and the production began to fall.

Will Middlebrooks is under Boston's control until 2017. He will be quite affordable for the big-market Red Sox at least until that time. If he stays healthy, all indications are that Middlebrooks can be every bit as good as Youkilis. The key is that Middlebrooks is ten years younger.

Time isn't kind to most athletes. In the era of free agency, players change teams every few years and team rosters turn over over few years. There are always young players waiting to take a veteran's spot. David Ortiz is now the only remaining member of the 2004 World Series team.

Red Sox Nation will always feel nostalgic toward Youkilis and this golden era of Red Sox baseball. They will always be thankful for his contributions, his commitment, his passion and his drive. But all things must end, as has Kevin Youkilis' time in a Red Sox uniform.

Thanks for the memories, Youk.

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