There is no doubt that the 2012 Red Sox will be a reconfigured team. Already, the team knows it will be without John Lackey next year, leaving two vacancies in the rotation. And with the team unlikely to open its wallet for another long-term deal for an expensive starting pitcher, and an absence of clear-cut, major-league ready starting pitching prospects in the system, the Sox will have to get creative.
The Sox will consider moving a reliever into a starting role. Even so, the team will have little choice but to go outside the organization for at least one and perhaps more starters to round out its rotation.
There will be buy-low or short-term free agents available, and the Sox will almost surely kick the tires on players with the stuff and/or track record that suggests an ability to compete in the American League East, but who are open to shorter-term, lower-risk deals. Still, that’s a tough combination of traits to come by in free agency, suggesting that the trade market, where affordable pitchers in their primes such as Gavin Floyd and John Danks might be available, could present a more enticing avenue.
That, in turn, has raised the question of who the Sox might have available as a trade chip, and one name already has been subjected to plenty of speculation: Kevin Youkilis.
In 2011, for the second straight year, Youkilis missed a significant stretch of the year due to injuries. For the second straight year, his season came to an early conclusion with a condition (in this case, a sports hernia) that required surgery. Moreover, in the aftermath of the season-ending collapse, the third baseman has been portrayed as a dour personality who could not help to turn the tide of a clubhouse culture gone awry.
Those elements, along with the fact that the Red Sox have a top third base prospect in Will Middlebrooks -- projected to be an above-average, power-hitting offensive and defensive third baseman -- have led some to conjure scenarios in which Youkilis is moved for pitching this winter.
In theory, the idea might seem plausible. But the reality is likely different. In short, don’t count on the Sox trading Youkilis this offseason.
According to multiple sources inside and outside the organization, the Sox do not expect to move the third baseman this winter. His skills and contract (the Sox will owe him $12 million in 2012, and then have a $13 million team option with a $1 million buyout for 2013) remain assets rather than liabilities.
When healthy (more on that loaded disclaimer in a bit), Youkilis -- who will turn 33 next March -- remains one of the most productive hitters in the game. That fact, coupled with the fact that Youkilis does not have the sort of contract that will hamstring the Sox’ efforts to build their roster, suggests that the Sox are unlikely to improve by moving Youkilis.
Indeed, while plenty of attention has been paid to the off-the-field issues that swallowed the club as well as the dreadful performance by the rotation in September, a case can be made that the loss of a productive Youkilis in the middle of the Sox’ lineup was just as significant.
For much of the first half and through July, the Sox could make a case to having one of the most productive top-halves in a lineup in major league history. Of the team’s first five hitters -- Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, Adrian Gonzalez, Youkilis and David Ortiz -- each had an OPS+ of 135 or better (meaning that each had an OPS 35 percent or more better than the league average hitter). Only one team in major league history (the 1953 Brooklyn Dodgers) could make such a claim.
Youkilis -- who led the AL in slugging and OPS from 2008-10 – was a central part of that. While his numbers were not quite at the peak level of his prior three seasons, he earned his third All-Star berth by carrying a .285 average, .399 OBP, .512 slugging mark and .911 OPS through the first half.
Among big league third basemen at that time, Youkilis had the best OBP, slugging percentage and OPS. He was a huge part of the Sox’ relentless lineup depth in the middle of the year, punishing opponents for pitching around first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and contributing to a situation where David Ortiz seemingly always had runners on base, thus preventing opponents from pitching around the DH with an open base.
In a sense, that level of production came as something of a surprise given the fact that starting in spring training, his swing was different than it had been in past years. After missing the final two months of 2010 due to a torn adductor muscle in his hand, Youkilis was swinging and missing as never before.
“Youk told me right from the word go in spring training that his swing felt screwed up. I kept telling him, ‘It’s early, you’ll be fine.’ He really didn’t feel all year long like it was there,” noted Youkilis’ agent, Joe Bick. “I said, ‘It must not have been too messed up. You made the All-Star team.’”
But in the second half, Youkilis saw his productivity take a nosedive. A succession of crippling injuries -- a sports hernia, a lower back strain, bursitis in his hip -- resulted in a dramatic decline in his lineup impact.
Physically, the toll of the injuries didn’t allow him to perform to his normal standards. The impact was discernible, both on Youkilis and the team.
He hit .199 with a .314 OBP, .346 slugging mark and .660 OPS along with four homers in 37 games. His struggles -- and, ultimately, his absence during a two-week stint on the DL in August and then the final two weeks of the regular season -- destabilized the Sox lineup.
The left-right balance ran askew, the Sox were left to juggle the batting order to make up for the loss of their cleanup hitter, and whereas it had been almost impossible to pitch around any of the front five hitters, opponents suddenly had soft spots to exploit.
The Sox’ offense remained explosive in bursts, but the consistent thrashings of opposing pitching staffs disappeared. As such, the team could not simpl outslug opponents in the final month as it had in the preceding ones, a particularly costly development given the need to do so thanks to the September struggles of the pitching staff.
Youkilis underwent surgery on Oct. 4. His status is of great significance to the Sox as they construct their team for next year. When healthy, there are few third basemen in the game who can match his production. Even with his numbers dragged down by health woes, of the 21 third basemen with 400 or more plate appearances last year, Youkilis finished fifth in OPS (.833), second in OBP (.373) and eighth in slugging (.459).
The Sox can’t readily go out and replace that level of production. While Middlebrooks is highly regarded, and looks long-term like Boston’s third baseman of the future, he has just 60 plate appearances in Triple-A, where he hit .161 with a .468 OPS following a stellar run in Double-A.
Had Middlebrooks been ready to jump into a big league role, the Sox would have called him up in September, when they were without Youkilis. They did not. Nor, under almost any circumstance, would they consider having him open 2012 in the majors.
Even when he does get promoted to the majors, the likelihood is that Middlebrooks will face a period of transition that would last weeks if not months to major league pitching. Unless the Sox are out of the pennant race, they will be ill-suited to move on from Youkilis to Middlebrooks until the prospect has significantly more experience against advanced pitching. In a best-case scenario, he might be ready as a call-up late in the season.
The potential in-house options at the major league level, Jed Lowrie and Mike Aviles, also would lead to projections of a significant performance dropoff, and both come with health questions of their own.
Most of the free-agent options at third base are, politely, terrible. Aramis Ramirez, who hit .306/.361/.510/.871 with 26 homers in 2011, is a legitimate middle-of-the-order bat. However, if the Cubs do not exercise his $16 million team option, he comes with health questions of his own after averaging 103 games in 2009-10. He is a year older than Youkilis, yet would be seeking more money and more years than what Youkilis is owed by the Sox, thus potentially blocking Middlebrooks, unless Ramirez moved to DH, in which case a free-agent deal would look like even more of an overpay.
Aside from Betemit, the rest of the free agent pool of third basemen features slim pickings. The Blue Jays hold a $3.5 million team option on Edwin Encarnacion, who produced roughly league average numbers while serving primarily as a DH for them this year. Wilson Betemit, who performed very well for the Tigers down the stretch, is the next-best option on the market – a career .269 hitter with a .784 OPS who has spent his career shuffling around the infield.
The trade market? Well, the Mets will explore other teams’ interest in David Wright, but the 28-year-old hit .254/.345/.427/.771 in 2011 while playing just 102 games in what was his worst year in the majors as a hitter. Moreover, the asking price for him likely would start with elite, young starting pitching -- precisely the commodity that the Red Sox theoretically would seek if they traded Youkilis.
In sum: The potential production of Youkilis, combined with the absence of legitimate alternatives at third base to him, means that he is not viewed right now as a trade chip by members of the Sox front office.
But can he be healthy? That question is very fair to ask, particularly that Youkilis has acknowledged that he will never veer from playing the game at full intensity, even if it comes at the expense of his longevity.
After he averaged 146 games from 2006-08, Youkilis has been on the field for 102 and 120 games in the last two years. That being the case, both the player and the Sox consider this to be a significant offseason for him as he works to rehab from surgery and then put himself on a position to be a more regular presence on the field.
Towards that end, Youkilis plans on modifying his offseason workout program. After he completes his rehab from surgery (he is nearing the point where he can start riding a bike again), the third baseman plans to tweak his offseason program to emphasize flexibility over power.
“He thinks that he really went into spring training last year too bulked up,” said Bick. “Really, the idea for him this winter is for him to maintain and smooth things out, [get] more limber, that kind of thing. That’s the objective for the offseason.”
Given his discomfort at the plate last spring training, Bick suggested, Youkilis is also likely to begin swinging earlier this offseason than he has in hopes of hitting the ground running. At the least, however, Youkilis is expected to make a full recovery from his surgery by the time he reports to Red Sox camp.
“I fully anticipate that when he gets to Fort Myers, all this is history and he’s right back to being what he is,” said Bick. Ã¢ÂÂ¨
That is true not just of his physical health, but also of his employer. Both Youkilis and the Sox right now appear to be working on the assumption that he will be back in 2012. While the Sox might need to explore trade opportunities this winter, for now, it appears unlikely that Youkilis will be moved in order to do so.