David Ortiz sat slumped in front of his locker late Sunday afternoon, not exactly portraying the picture of a player whose team had won a rousing 9-4 win over the Braves. Looking up, he pointed to the locker just to the right of his chair and just to the left of teammate Scott Podsednik.
According to the nameplate, it belonged to no one.
The sight of the blank strip of metal seemingly hit home for Ortiz -- he was the last man standing. He was the final member of the Red Sox still around from the organization's best times, the World Series wins in 2004 and '07. Kevin Youkilis was gone.
"How long was he here for, nine years? It doesn't happen every day. He was kind of mad and upset. I don't blame him. He knew it was coming, but it's still tough," Ortiz said.
A few lockers down resided Nick Punto, the player who had helped punctuate Youkilis' time in Boston by pinch-running for the 33-year-old after a gift triple had allowed for the season's most memorable moment. Unbeknownst to many, the first-year Red Sox had a deep relationship with Youkilis, dating back years before when both started working out at Athletes Performance in Arizona. Youkilis lobbied the Red Sox to sign Punto following the '08 season, and once again vouched for the utilityman this past offseason.
As Punto stood in front of the media to describe his on-field embrace with the man who had just been traded to the White Sox for pitcher Zach Stewart and infielder/outfielder Brent Lillibridge, the emotion of the moment started to take root.
"We've been friends a long time, probably 10 years. I know how much blood, sweat and tears he has thrown into this organization," Punto said. "I think for me it's kind of a goodbye. We haven't been teammates, but we've been friends for a long time. I think for the sake of baseball, it's always sad to see someone go like that.
"After he got that ovation in the first inning we were sitting next to each other and he goes, 'Man, it was hard to hit after that. That felt pretty good.' He hasn't been feeling too great about himself this season. But not too many Boston Red Sox players have two world championships. He was a heck of a player for this organization."
The departure couldn't be classified as a surprise by any stretch of the imagination.
Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington had talked to Youkilis three days prior to inform the infielder interest was heating up and a deal could be imminent. Then Saturday night the talks had been pared down to three teams -- the White Sox, Indians and Dodgers -- making a Sunday farewell even more likely.
As the afternoon game approached, the White Sox were separating themselves by suggesting Stewart -- a pitcher the Red Sox had eyed since scouting him at Texas Tech prior to the '08 draft -- might be available in a deal. Still, it was determined by Sox manager Bobby Valentine and Cherington that until a deal was finalized, the priority remained with winning and with Atlanta lefty Mike Minor on the mound the Sox' best lineup had Youkilis in it. (It was a strategy that almost back-fired when the third baseman took a line-drive off the heel of his glove, stinging his left thumb.)
"The way we saw it and talked about it last night was, until he's traded he's on the team," Cherington said. "We're trying to win every game, and Bobby felt like having him in the lineup today gave us the best chance to win the game. It was as simple as that. Once we got closer, I went down and let Bobby know that we were close enough that the right thing to do was probably get him out. But yeah, last night that was the decision was just, put the lineup out there that gives us the best chance to win the game, and he was in it."
As has been the case for the majority of his nine seasons with the Red Sox, Youkilis did his part … as did the Fenway Park fans.
The first at-bat was accompanied with a standing ovation and helmet tip prior to a single up the middle. Then, after the Braves inexplicably allowed Youkilis' seventh-inning fly ball to drop in for a triple, the day's signature moment came as word started to filter through the Red Sox' dugout that something was up. By the time Youkilis had hugged Punto, saluted the fans once again, he had a throng of teammates waiting to offer embraces of their own in front of the home team's dugout. Finally came an Ortiz-encouraged curtain call … and that was it.
“During the game, some things were happening and we were getting closer to an agreement, it wasn’t official, but it was close enough where we felt like we needed to get him out of the game as a precaution," Cherington explained. "Bobby wanted him to have that moment of walking off the field. I talked to him after he was out of the game and told him we still had some work to do but something may happen. It’s an emotional time for everyone -- for Kevin, for his teammates. Kevin has been here for a long time and has been a great player and played hard every inning he’s been out there."
Here are some other thoughts on the end of the Kevin Youkilis Era:
THE SITUATION WAS UNSALVAGEABLE
The main impetus for moving Youkilis was undoubtedly the presence of Will Middlebrooks and the need to cement some sort of lineup that didn't have Adrian Gonzalez playing right field, or middle-of-the-order hitters taking every other day off. But the oil-and-water relationship between Youkilis and Valentine certainly didn't help matters.
Maybe it started in spring training, when Valentine would reference various metrics pointing out fielding deficiencies. Perhaps the tipping point came when Valentine questioned Youkilis' emotional state in a Channel 7 interview. And then there was whatever communication -- or lack thereof -- took place throughout the season's first few months. The manager hadn't been there for the best of Youkilis, and seemingly wasn't convinced that player would be coming around any time soon. Like some others in the Red Sox' clubhouse, Youkilis had also only known one kind of manager in his major league life, and Valentine was not it.
In the end, it all ultimately led to a phone call that left quite an impression on White Sox general manager Kenny Williams.
"He said he hasn't felt this good physically for a long time. He said he is very excited to join our club and he has a little bit of edge to him, which I like," Williams told reporters. "I can't tell you exactly what he said, but he wants to come in and prove some people wrong."
The tension could have been worse, especially with the player who was forcing the end of an era, Middlebrooks, serving as a constant presence. But both Youkilis and the rookie would handle the dynamic with the needed level of professionalism, leaving the only awkwardness between the out-going infielder and his new manager.
This was evidenced first in the clubhouse after Sunday's game: "He's taken me under his wing and shown me the ways and really made me comfortable," Middlebrooks said. And then later in the day thanks to a tweet from @middlebrooks stating, "It was truly an honor paling with and learning from Youk… He's the definition of a professional. Played the game right."
THERE WAS NO SLOWING DOWN THE MIDDLEBROOKS ERA
Before Sunday's game a startling stat surfaced: Only four players since 1920 had put up the numbers (.331, nine homers, 31 RBIs) Middlebrooks had through their first 40 big league games, with the last player to accomplish such a feat being Albert Pujols.
The Red Sox' projections for Middlebrooks didn't include this, but it had gotten to a point where even the most cautious of calculations couldn't lead to sending the young third baseman away from the Sox' lineup.
"We were trying to find a resolution that worked for everyone," Cherington said. "Kevin’s been an everyday player for pretty much his entire career. With the way Middlebrooks has been playing, Middlebrooks needs to be in the lineup. That’s pretty clear. Bobby has done the best job he can at juggling the parts he’s had here the last few days and trying to get people in the lineup as much as possible and move guys around. But it was a challenge. We were trying to find a resolution that would allow him to have a little bit more stable roster and lineup, and Will deserved to be in that lineup. Once we came to that conclusion, we talked about it and decided that if there was a trade that made sense for us and for Kevin and everyone involved, that we would pursue that. On the second question, it was a factor. We weighed different opportunities. It just so happened that even factoring that in, it was the best deal for us, so we did it.”
Middlebrooks will go through a slump, but he hasn't so far. Remarkably, in his 41 games thus far this season he hasn't gone more than two games without notching at least one hit. Initially, he had been feasting off fastballs, with breaking balls offering somewhat of a challenge. Yet, even that trend had turned of late, offering the Red Sox yet another reason to make the move.
"It was sort of an evolution. He's been a pretty consistent performer since he's got called up," Cherington said of Middlebrooks. "As I said, I guess the thing that ultimately tipped the scale was when we saw him –– he went through a tiny stretch there where he struggled a little bit with some at-bats and was in and out of the lineup a little bit. He really righted himself pretty quickly coming off that stretch. I think that gave us some comfort that this guy is ready to make the kind of adjustments that big league players need to make. He'll need to make adjustments again down the road. It's not going to be smooth sailing for any player, but he's a talented kid. Very confident, certainly has proven he belongs here and has helped us win games already and we're confident he'll continue to do that."
IT SHOULDN'T BE FORGOTTEN HOW GOOD YOUKILIS CAN BE
To say Youkilis was a shell of himself for most of this season isn't an understatement. That, in part, is a testament to how good he has been. This is a player who from 2008-10 had the third-best OPS in baseball (.964), trailing only Pujols and Manny Ramirez. He is also a hitter who for the first half of '11 had the second-best OPS of any third baseman in the game.
It was why if Youkilis hadn't signed his contract extension he would have hit the free agent market following the '10 season and presumably been in line for a contract similar to the one afforded Jayson Werth's seven-year, $126 million deal (at least in annual average value).
Yes, it appeared as though sports hernia surgery had initially altered his production. Adjustments were made in spring training, but after some uneven results (along with back problems) consistency in the new approach was lacking. In the days leading up to Youkilis' departure there were few balls driven to left field, with the righty hitter seemingly cheating far too often to take advantage of inside pithes.
But there had been signs that perhaps the player of previous seasons could be uncovered. He hit the wall for a double Thursday, and Sunday saw a couple of hard-hit balls.
For the White Sox -- whose third base position stands at a major league-low .467 OPS -- the acquisition represented very little risk and a whole bunch of upside.
"There is no way we are not a better team with Kevin Youkilis," White Sox first baseman Paul Konerko told reporters Sunday. "He is just too good of a player and has been through all the wars and is still relatively a young guy. We just have to keep him on the field. If that is the case, it could be one of the bigger steals of the season."
STEWART HOLDS THE KEY TO GRADING THE DEAL
Lillibridge could be a serviceable pick-up thanks to the 28-year-old's versatility and speed. He has played every position but pitcher and catcher, and doesn't become arbitration-eligible until after this season, although he is out of options. (You might also remember him from his 12-pitch at-bat in Chicago which pushed Josh Beckett's outing up to a season-high 126 pitches.)
But it is Stewart who represents the be-all, end-all when it comes to the deal for the Red Sox.
“He’s a young pitcher who we believe can be a starter," said Cherington of the 25-year-old, who still has two options. "We have scouted him since college, Texas Tech, through the minor leagues, and he was a big part of their deal last summer. He’s been in the big leagues in the bullpen, and we’re going to send him to Triple-A and let him pitch in the rotation there. We believe he can develop into a good major-league starter. We want to get him back into that role. He’s a big, physical strong kid with three solid pitches. He throws strikes. He’s had a good minor-league track record. He’s a guy that looks like a major-league starter. He just needs a little bit more time in Triple-A to fine-tune things. We’re excited. He’ll be a big part of our pitching depth moving forward."
If you look at Stewart's numbers through his minor league career, the Red Sox' infatuation is understandable. In '09 he carried a 1.09 ERA in 24 relief appearances. The next season it was 1.89 ERA over 34 outings (14 starts). His first full year as a starter, in '10, he responded with an 8-3 record and a 3.63 ERA in 26 starts. And last year -- when he broke into the majors for 11 starts -- Stewart had a 4.20 ERA in 11 Triple-A starts.
The righty, who had recently been sent to Triple-A Charlotte after making 18 appearances for the White Sox, will immediately be sent to Pawtucket, where the Red Sox hope he will continue into the kind of pitcher which will make this trade palatable -- a major league middle-of-the-rotation presence.
The timing of the deal wasn't ideal. If the Red Sox could have ever strung the situation along until closer to the non-waiver trade deadline greater value might have been uncovered. But the situation was a unique one, as was the primary player involved.