Let’s get this out of the way first: Everyone wants resolution.
It is in the best interests of Will Middlebrooks, who has given every indication that he deserves an everyday job. It is in the best interests of Kevin Youkilis, whose efforts to lock in his swing and get hot are made more challenging by the periodic interruptions of his playing time and the need to look over his shoulder. It is in the best interests of the Red Sox, who want players to be comfortable in their roles.
Ultimately, the Sox are going to hand the reins at third base to Will Middlebrooks. It is only a matter of time, and the team would like nothing more than to find an interested party who will trade for Kevin Youkilis while providing respectable value in return as soon as possible.
There is interest from multiple teams in Youkilis, according to a source familiar with the situation, though for now, it is more exploratory rather than anything that would suggest an immediate likelihood of a deal. The fact that the 33-year-old can play both first and third base, and that he is a hitter with a track record that placed him among the best hitters in the game for several years (even if he is performing at a level far short of that now), ensures that there will be inquiries about Youkilis.
Still, that interest has yet to match what the Sox hope to receive in exchange for the veteran. Teams are trying to buy low on a player who is hitting .225 with a .311 OBP, .359 slugging mark and .670 OPS. The Sox, while understanding that they cannot trade him as if he’s at the peak of a career that netted him three All-Star berths and two top-six finishes in MVP balloting, do not want to give him away.
It is not just Youkilis’ past value to the team that makes the Sox unwilling to cut bait. If they do trade the corner infielder, after all, not only is there the possibility that he would excel for another club, but the team also would be leaving itself vulnerable to either injury or the hitting of the proverbial wall by rookie Middlebrooks.
One need look no further than the 2010 season, when the Sox were willing to trade Mike Lowell -- even going so far as to contemplate dealing him to the Yankees -- but could not. Days after the trade deadline, Youkilis suffered a season-ending injury. Lowell suddenly became a lineup regular again.
And so the team continues a delicate balancing act, trying to find enough time for Youkilis to showcase him for other teams and hoping he gets hot in a way that can reconnect him with his stature of recent years while playing Middlebrooks enough to prevent him from getting rusty.
It’s not the easiest or most natural thing in the world. There is a chance, on any given day, that the Sox are not fielding their best lineup, potentially sacrificing immediate need in hopes of maximizing long-term value to the franchise -- Middlebrooks through continued development, Youkilis through trade value.
It’s a complicated situation. But in at least one crucial respect, the dynamic has been made easier to stomach.
Whenever a young player shifts from playing everyday to a more irregular role, there are concerns that his development will be impaired. Middlebrooks has eliminated those. Instead, he is using the experience to his benefit and continuing to perform in the process.
That pattern continued in dramatic fashion on Thursday night, when the 23-year-old had an electrifying game, going 3-for-4 while driving in four runs, an effort capped by a game-tying, two-run homer to straightaway center in the bottom of the eighth. The blast, Middlebrooks’ eighth of the year, set in motion a game-winning three-run rally in the Sox’ 6-5 victory over the Marlins.
The home run, which erased a 5-3 deficit, was particularly eye-opening. The Marlins summoned reliever Edward Mujica to the game specifically for Middlebrooks. Mujica represents a right-on-right nightmare; entering the game, right-handed hitters had a .167/.215/.267/.482 line against him.
Middlebrooks fell behind 0-2 on back-to-back splitters, the first a called strike, the second a pitch he chased. He then laid off another splitter to get to 1-2, fouled off another and then took a fastball to get to 2-2.
Mujica then saw a 94 mph fastball that ran back over the plate and, though he was hitting with two strikes, recognized a pitch on which he could unload, lining a pitch on the inner half over the center field fence and into the bleachers for the game-changing homer.
“It was an inside-out swing,” marveled teammate Mike Aviles. “To hit it out to that part of the ballpark, that far out on a line, the only thing we were yelling was, ‘Get up, ball.’ We didn’t know if it was going to be high enough. It worked out.”
That has been the case with almost everything that Middlebrooks has done. Since Youkilis returned from the disabled list on May 22, Middlebrooks is hitting .339 with a .382 OBP, .516 slugging mark and .898 OPS along with three homers and 15 RBI. Despite the fact that he has never before faced a situation in which he has played on anything other than an everyday basis, the third baseman continues to thrive.
Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine was asked whether he could resist having Middlebrooks -- who has started 11 of 18 games in June -- play on an everyday basis, rather than continuing his timeshare with Kevin Youkilis at third base.
"It seems like he’s doing just fine like this. He’s keeping sharp," said Valentine. "He’s watching, he’s learning and when he’s in there, he doesn’t look like he’s missing a beat, obviously."
For his part, Middlebrooks said that he is continuing to grow as a player. Indeed, the fact that he has been playing on something other than an everyday basis for the first time in his career merely has reinforced what he sees as a valuable lesson in consistency.
"It really hasn’t been [challenging]," Middlebrooks said of his playing time. "I do the same thing every day whether I’m playing or not, in the cage, on the field, ground balls, everything is the same. Anything could happen. You could get scratched. Anything could happen. I’ve just got to be ready.
"It’s about consistency, really," he continued. "They teach it in the minor leagues, but to really get here and see these guys, it shows me what it really is. I’m just trying to be more like them."
Middlebrooks makes it sound as if such a trait comes naturally. He is performing as if it comes naturally. For most players, it does not come naturally, part of the reason why members of the Red Sox are so impressed with the rookie.
“He’s done an unbelievable job since he got here,” said Aviles. “He’s very professional with everything. He comes to the park, works, gets his lift in, does his video time, does everything he’s supposed to do and goes about his business in a good way. He’s not disrespectful -- he’s a very respectful kid. He’s a baller.
“The only thing people see is his performance on the field. But his character and everything else outside the field is tremendous, especially for a younger guy like him.”
Aviles has discussed the third base timeshare with Middlebrooks, and came away impressed with the 23-year-old’s ability to take a mature perspective on it.
“There’s not many people who come up at a young age and play every single day. It just doesn’t really happen. And then, on a team like Boston, in this pressure cooker, this environment, big city, you don’t see it that often,” said Aviles. “He’s playing a lot more than most rookies do in their first year, regardless of age. I always tell him, ‘Take those days you don’t play, feel your swing, feel good, take groundballs, do everything you need to do and rest up. You’re going to come in at some point – you might have to pinch-hit, you might come in for defense – or if you get a day off, take the day off and get rest for the next day.’
“He’s done a tremendous job of all that, handling everything. The only thing you can control is when you’re playing. We’ve talked about it. He’s done a great job with it.”
The numbers suggest as much. Middlebrooks is hitting .316 with a .352 OBP, .551 slugging percentage, a .903 OPS, eight homers and 31 RBI. His numbers with runners in scoring position have been even more staggering, as he is hitting .419 (tops in the American League among hitters with at least 40 plate appearances in such situations) with a .458 OBP, .767 slugging mark (again, tops in the AL) and 1.226 OPS.
A bit of perspective on what Middlebrooks has been doing: In Red Sox history, there have been five players who posted an OPS of .900 or better with at least 300 plate appearances at the age of 23 or younger. The roll call: Mike Greenwell (who was an MVP runner-up in 1987), Fred Lynn (in his Rookie of the Year/MVP campaign of 1975), Hall of Famer Ted Williams (who did it four times), Hall of Famer Babe Ruth (in 1918) and Hall of Famer Tris Speaker (in 1911).
There is a good chance that, at some point, Middlebrooks will go through a period of extended struggle and come back to earth. That’s simply the normal process of an adjustment to a higher level, and the higher level’s adjustment back to the young player.
Even so, to date, everything about his debut has been little short of dazzling, both in terms of what he’s done on the field and how he’s handled his time when he is off of it, soliciting the advice from veterans like Aviles and Youkilis himself and applying it.
“He’s been awesome. He’s helped me out so much, man -- not just baseball, but off the field, how to handle everything,” Middlebrooks said of Youkilis.
That sort of collaboration between the two third basemen has made a potentially uncomfortable situation manageable for the Red Sox, at least for now. All the same, in all likelihood, the timeshare is winding down.
Ultimately, performance will dictate playing time.
“I think that’s a fact of the game that we play,” said Sox manager Bobby Valentine.
And the performance of Middlebrooks is screaming for an everyday role, even if it means getting something other than full value for Youkilis. It is a situation that everyone recognizes, and that will ultimately benefit all parties.