Apparently, Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia are inseparable. The fact that an injury has now forced Youkilis out of the World Baseball Classic, just as happened for Pedroia over the weekend, merely reflects the latest chapter linking the players.
As Pedroia burst onto the scene in 2007, the two felt a kinship thanks to motivation drawn from the desire to win and to prove their doubters wrong while defying expectations. Both are champions, Gold Glovers and Silver Sluggers.
On the day when Pedroia won the MVP and Youkilis finished third, Youkilis beamed about the experience of playing on the same side of the infield during the regular-season, postseason and as All-Star Game starters. The opportunity to anchor the right side of the infield for Team USA in the WBC kept the two in lockstep. They remain in that shared rhythm now that Youkilis has been forced from the tournament with injuries to his left ankle and Achilles tendon, just days after Pedroia was forced out by an abdominal strain.
Youkilis had been experiencing ankle pain for the better part of a week, according to a baseball source. It became clear following Team USA’s win on Tuesday over Puerto Rico (a game in which Youkilis homered and drew a bases-loaded walk) that the first baseman needed medical attention.
He returned to Fort Myers and was examined by the Red Sox medical staff, which diagnosed him, according to a team press release, “with a mild left ankle sprain as well as mild Achilles tendinitis in his left foot.” MRI results on both areas were negative, but the team will immobilize the foot with a boot for several days to allow the injuries to heal.
Youkilis will be unable to participate in the WBC as it moves to Los Angeles for the semi-finals and finals this weekend. Among pessimists, the idea of a boot might inspire visions of Nomar Garciaparra’s bizarre 2004 spring training. The shortstop was diagnosed with mild tendonitis in his Achilles, wore a boot, and was said to be fit for Opening Day before missing more than two months of the regular season.
Youkilis, however, “is not expected to miss significant time,” according to the team statement.
While the WBC is once again being viewed critically for its role in causing injuries – Pedroia and Youkilis join several other players, including Atlanta’s Chipper Jones and Milwaukee slugger Ryan Braun – the Team USA training staff has received credit for consistently erring on the side of caution and encouraging players to seek treatment rather than play through pain.
A BARD’S FAREWELL
The position of backup catcher has proven one of the most unstable on the Red Sox roster in recent spring trainings. In 2006, John Flaherty tried to catch Tim Wakefield for one game before determining that the task of spearing knuckleballs was so daunting that he preferred retirement. Flaherty conceded the job to Josh Bard, who was overmatched by the task one month into his Red Sox career that year, and so was traded to San Diego to bring back Doug Mirabelli.
Mirabelli remained in Boston until last March, when he was shocked by a mid-camp cut in favor of Kevin Cash. Cash was not tendered a contract this past offseason, became a free agent and signed with the Yankees, opening the door for Bard’s return.
But on Wednesday, the Sox announced that they would cut Bard, continuing the merry-go-round of catchers paired with Wakefield. The move came as something of a surprise, since Bard been paired with Wakefield in all but one of the pitcher’s outings this spring, and had done what the team considered a passable job receiving the pitcher’s tosses. The switch-hitter was also hitting .429 (6-for-14) and had shown pop from the right side.
Bard, however, had difficulty controlling the running game, whether Wakefield or any other pitcher was on the mound. (Most notably, the Pirates seemed to run at will on Bard in a game in Bradenton about 10 days ago.) That played heavily into the decision to release Bard yesterday and instead make 25-year-old George Kottaras – who caught Wakefield in a game for the first and only time last Friday – the favorite to back up starting catcher Jason Varitek.
“It’s (Kottaras’) job to lose,” said Sox G.M. Theo Epstein. “(He) looked comfortable catching Wake the other day, which shouldn’t come as a surprise because he’s got good hands and he’s been very comfortable catching (fellow knuckleballer Charlie) Zink in the minor leagues.
“(Kottaras and Dusty Brown) have been throwing well. (Varitek) has been throwing really well, too. That was really the biggest issue now—(Kottaras’) throwing.”
Kottaras, who is now out of minor-league options and would have to clear waivers if not on the major-league roster, was acquired from the Padres in late-2006 when the Sox shipped David Wells to San Diego. Offensively, the catcher had an interesting mix of power and patience at Triple-A Pawtucket last year. He hit .243 but with a .348 OBP and .456 slugging mark, as well as 22 homers in just 395 at-bats.
“He’s got a strong throwing arm. He’s got really good hands,” Epstein continued. “He’s got some life in his bat. He’s got some knowledge of the strike zone. He’s not going to hit for a really high average, but between his walks and his power he still manages to bring something to the table offensively.”
As a left-handed hitter, he provides a better theoretical complement to Varitek, since Varitek’s left-handed stroke is not as strong as his right-handed one (something that is also true for the switch-hitting Bard). But Epstein cautioned that such a consideration was not meaningful in and of itself.
“He has the potential to be a nice complement to Jason as a left-handed bat,” said Epstein. “(But) that in and of itself doesn’t mean anything. He’s got to go play well.”
The release of Bard does nothing to change the Sox’ outlook regarding the catching market. The team continues to examine the market for a potential successor to Varitek, but there is, according to Epstein, nothing that the team is looking to do in the immediate future.
“We’ve been saying all along that we’re happy with the young guys,” said Epstein. “Maybe this move will help emphasize it a little more. We’re not in any active talks. There’s nothing imminent at all. For now, we’re going to address this internally. Sure, someone that we think can be a real upgrade as a No. 1 catcher when Jason’s career comes to an end, we’ll always be on the lookout for that guy. But we’re happy with what we have internally right now.”
By releasing Bard this morning, the team freed more time for Kottaras to work with Wakefield this spring, and for both Kottaras and his 2008 Pawtucket teammate Dusty Brown to work with the rest of the pitching staff.
Bard had signed a $1.6 million non-guaranteed contract with the Sox in December. As such, by releasing him on Wednesday morning, the team is only on the hook for 30 days of termination pay ($262,295). While Kottaras has caught Wakefield just once this spring, the Sox still felt comfortable with the move. The front office did not seek Wakefield’s feedback on this specific course of action, though they have gotten his assessments of catchers throughout the spring.
“We get (Wakefield’s) feedback all the time, but we’re paid to make these decisions,” said Epstein. “It’s tough to let a guy go who is a good person and doing his best. (Bard) has had a good career but we felt that this was the best move, the right fit for the organization at this time.”
A HUGE FAN OF TEAM NETHERLANDS
Even though the Netherlands were eliminated from the WBC last week, Red Sox minor leaguer Swen Huijer remained elated about the team’s shocking pair of upsets against the Dominican Republic. Huijer, a skyscraping 6-foot-9 right-hander from just outside of Amsterdam, worked out with the Dutch team over the winter and was thrilled to see them knock off a baseball superpower.
“I watched all the games. I stayed up to watch my fellow citizens win that (thing), which was great,” said Huijer. “I really didn’t expect it. The first (win over the Dominican), I was really surprised. But the second one, I was like, we’re not going to do it again. Then we did it. It was a great, great feeling. My roommate was sleeping at the moment we won. I woke him up, just jumping in the room. It was amazing.”
Huijer, 18, came to the Red Sox by way of a league that is considered the top level of the minors in the Netherlands. He was invited to the MLB Academy in Italy for a tryout, where he impressed against an Italian team for three innings.
“I held them hitless, just pitched great,” said Huijer. “Two weeks after that, I had a proposal (from the Red Sox) in my voicemail box and signed.”
The world of professional baseball in the U.S. has been night-and-day different than what he came from in the Netherlands. There, Huijer practiced two days a week and played on Fridays and Sundays. Now, he is adjusting to the regiment of baseball as a full-time phenomenon.
Huijer said that his fastball touches about 87 mph right now, but as the lanky pitcher puts on weight and adds muscle, he hopes to bump up those readings. Depending on the pace of his development, he could end up contributing to the next Netherlands WBC squad in 2013.