It seemed safe to suggest that Kevin Youkilis wasn’t going to come back to Boston anytime soon to play for Bobby Valentine. But just in case there was any doubt …
"Just for the record, if you're going to bring up Youk, I'm going to say this about Youk," Valentine said in his Wednesday interview with The Big Show. "What was he hitting when he left here? 238. When he left here, the reason he was hitting .238 is because I really affected him negatively. I was the root cause of his not performing well. Since he's been with Chicago he's hitting .238. I just want to make it clear that the cause of him hitting .238 was not me."
Technically, Valentine was more or less correct. Youkilis hit .233 with the Red Sox; entering Wednesday’s White Sox game (in which Youkilis homered twice), he was hitting .234 in Chicago.
But, of course, there’s a bit more to it. In the post-Moneyball world, the notion that batting average defines the quality of a hitter is about as compelling as an effort to navigate a flat earth. That being the case, it would be difficult to suggest that Youkilis hasn’t enjoyed a drastic improvement since leaving the Red Sox than he was while still in Boston this year:
Red Sox: 42 games, .233 average, .315 OBP, .377 slugging, .692 OPS, 4 HR
White Sox: 62 games, .239 average, .357 OBP, .464 slugging, .821 OPS, 14 HR
That’s not to suggest that Valentine was necessarily the cause of Youkilis’ struggles. The roster logjam created by the presence of Youkilis, Will Middlebrooks and Adrian Gonzalez -- which resulted in the juggling of playing time and positions -- likely had more to do with the longtime Sox veteran's rough start to the year.
Regardless, at a time when the Red Sox lack a first baseman beyond for the 2013 season (James Loney becomes a free agent after this year), it’s simply worth taking stock of Youkilis’ performance in the context of potential free agents who could play first. The White Sox hold a $13 million option (with a $1 million buyout) for Youkilis’ services this offseason. If Chicago declines the option, Youkilis will rank among the most appealing options in a free-agent class of first basemen that teams in need of a player at said position can only describe as painfully thin.
That being the case, it will be intriguing to see what materializes on the trade market, since few of the free agents represent ideal targets.
Here’s a look:
Adam LaRoche, Nationals (32 years old): .269/.341/.503, 29 HR
Nice timing! LaRoche and the Nationals have a $10 million mutual option. LaRoche is all but certain to decline it, given that he is in line for a multi-year deal with an average annual salary in excess of the value of his option.
Nick Swisher, Yankees (31 years old), .261/.346/.459/.806, 20 HR
Swisher has eight straight years of 20-plus homers and his .358 career OBP makes him one of the better table setters on the market this offseason. He is capable of playing first base and the outfield corners, offering a valuable degree of versatility. But he’s also reportedly shooting for a Jayson Werth-type contract, suggesting a player who isn’t exactly the model for the sort of disciplined signing that the Sox are trying to embrace.
Kevin Youkilis, White Sox (33 years old): 104 games, .236/.341/.429/.771, 18 HR (combined numbers in Chicago and Boston)
Youkilis has mixed characteristic patience with solid power since getting to the White Sox, even if his batting average has remained well below career norms (though it’s worth noting that he has a career-low batting average on balls in play in Chicago). The White Sox hold a $13 million option on his contract.
Given his recent injury history, his age and the fact that his numbers have gone down steadily in each of the last two years, it remains difficult to imagine him getting a multi-year deal in free agency. Still, on a one-year deal, there’s a lot to like about Youkilis, who can market himself as either a first baseman or a third baseman in a market that is weak in both positions. Of course, there is virtually no chance that Youkilis would return to play for Valentine, and even if the Red Sox make a managerial change, there is a decent likelihood that he might feel that his time in Boston had run its course.
Mike Napoli, Rangers (31 years old): 92 games, .223/.343/.429/.771, 17 HR
Napoli has essentially posted the same numbers as Youkilis this year while playing fewer games. He’s been on the disabled list since Aug. 11 with a quadriceps injury. He has positional versatility as a player capable of catching and playing first (though advanced metrics grade him as a bit of a defensive nightmare).
His free-agent year represented an ill-timed moment for him to hit for the lowest average, slugging percentage and OPS of his career. It will be intriguing to see whether he pursues a multi-year deal or if he tries to restore greater value on a one-year deal. (If he were to go the one-year route, he would do well to sign up for life in the AL East so that he could continue to terrorize the Red Sox … unless he wants to follow Josh Beckett to the NL West.)
Eric Chavez, Yankees (34 years old): 99 games, .282/.341/.480/.820, 13 HR
Chavez has had a very nice season as a narrowly defined platoon player who menaces right-handed pitchers (.300/.358/.525/.884 with all 13 of his homers), albeit one who has benefited from Yankee Stadium (.306/.364/.512/.876, 7 homers in New York; .260/.319/.449/.768, 6 homers on the road). He plays both infield corners.
Mark Reynolds, Orioles (29 years old): 115 games, .228/.347/.456/.804, 21 HR
Reynolds is a known quantity: A player with prodigious power who walks and strikes out a ton while engaging in acts of defensive butchery at both infield corners. The Orioles hold an $11 million option on his services.
Carlos Pena, Rays (34 years old): 140 games, .190/.321/.341/.663, 17 homers
Pena has long been a three-true outcomes hitter (he homers, walks or strikes out), but the best of those outcomes (the homers) is occurring with decreased frequency this year while the worst of those outcomes (the strikeouts) are coming at a slightly increased rate. He still plays terrific defense, however, helping to explain his continued everyday role with the Rays.
James Loney, Red Sox (28 years old): 128 games, .256/.299/.347/.646, 5 homers
It is an inopportune time for Loney to be enduring the worst year of his career. That said, he’s in the middle of what should be his prime years, and his career line (.284/.340/.422/.762) suggests a better player than the one who has been on display this year. He’s a spectacular defender at first base with terrific range.
His career offensive numbers were likely suppressed based on the fact that he played in a poor hitting environment. Dodger Stadium does few favors to those who call it home, where the spacious dimensions and cool Southern California air make for one of the best pitchers’ parks in the majors. As such, it is notable that Loney owned a career .295 average, .348 OBP, .466 slugging mark and .813 OPS on the road at the time of his trade to Boston, compared to his .273/.335/.379/.713 line at Dodger Stadium.
In some respects, Loney is a Casey Kotchman-ish player -- someone who was a highly regarded prospect coming up, with an excellent glove, no real history of hitting for power in the major leagues but the ability to hit for a decent average with some doubles.
Given his struggles this year and the fact that he’s spent most of his career in a home park that has been unkind to his offense, Loney is likely to seek a one-year deal with a team that plays its home games in a hitting environment that is favorable for his all-fields, line-drive approach. Fenway (perhaps as a platoon player?) likely represents a favorable platform environment, and the Sox were close to entering the 2010 season with Casey Kotchman as their everyday first baseman (before they signed Adrian Beltre to a one-year deal late that offseason), though Loney has yet to start hitting in Fenway.