The idea of trading Kevin Youkilis to make way for top prospect Will Middlebrooks gained early traction back in April, when Youkilis got off to a slow start and Middlebrooks was tearing it up for Pawtucket, hitting nine home runs and driving in 27 runs in his first 24 games.
That was premature. Youkilis has been a valuable middle-of-the-order presence in the Boston Red Sox's lineup year after year and figured to regain his batting stroke, while the 23-year-old Middlebrooks had fewer than 200 at-bats in Triple-A. No reason to rush things.
Now, however, that conversation is no longer just fan chatter. With Middlebrooks off to a dazzling start here and the 33-year-old Youkilis on the 15-day disabled list with yet another injury, this time a strained back, general manager Ben Cherington may be faced with his biggest decision yet, even more portentous than converting Daniel Bard to a starter.
Youkilis is on track to come off the 15-day disabled list on Monday, Bobby Valentine said Tuesday night in Kansas City, where he added he hadn't intended to suggest that Youkilis was "a cripple" when describing the walking program that had been prescribed for the third baseman.
But how do you immediately restore Youkilis to the lineup if Middlebrooks, who tied a big league record with nine RBIs in his first four games, is still swinging a hot bat?
Here are the options facing the Sox:
1. Send Middlebrooks back to Triple-A.
2. Move Middlebrooks to the outfield, a position he has never played as a pro.
3. Trade Youkilis, even if it means eating a significant portion of his $12 million contract.
Only two Sox position players in the past 20 years made it to the big leagues at an age equal to or younger than Middlebrooks and had 400 or more at-bats in their first season. One was Nomar Garciaparra, a two-time batting champion. The other, Dustin Pedroia, an MVP. Garciaparra made the Sox's roster out of spring training in 1997, having spent roughly the same amount of time in Triple-A as Middlebrooks. Pedroia spent a full season with the PawSox before he made it out of camp in 2007.
Garciaparra's promotion required a position change for an established veteran, John Valentin, who had just turned 30. Valentin initially balked at the move, briefly walking out of camp, before grudgingly agreeing to play both second and third.
Pedroia had an easier route. The Sox did not re-sign the incumbent, Mark Loretta, after the 2006 season, giving Pedroia a clear shot at winning the job.
In Youkilis, however, we're talking about an elite player. From 2006, when he first became an everyday player, through last season, Joe Mauer of the Twins is the only player in the American League with a higher on-base percentage than Youkilis (.410 to .392, with David Ortiz third at .390).
"It's great that Will has come and done a good job," Sox GM Ben Cherington told Sean McAdam of Comcast Sports New England on Tuesday night, "but Youk's on the DL and he doesn't lose his job because he got hurt."
That's what Cherington should have said, what Sox players would have expected him to say -- according Youkilis the respect he deserves. But that doesn't mean Youkilis remains in a Sox uniform for the rest of the season. A trade of Youkilis this season is inevitable, and quite possibly sooner than later.
In conversations with four veteran major league talent evaluators Tuesday, all were high on Middlebrooks ("I think he can be a helluva player," said one) and all said they believed there would be a strong market for Youkilis. "With that extra wild-card,"' one said, "there will be a lot more places to move him." Only one thought that the Sox should send Middlebrooks back to the minors, at least long enough for Youkilis to prove to potential trading partners that he is healthy.
"A lot of clubs could use him," another evaluator said. "Put him in a small ballpark, and he might go off. I'll tell you one thing -- [Dan] Duquette would trade for him."
Duquette, now the Baltimore Orioles' GM, was Red Sox GM when Youkilis was drafted in 2001.
"That's a tough one," said another executive. "Middlebrooks is giving this team the kind of jump-start it needs. And Youkilis, I don't think he'd mind being traded, and there will be a heckuva market out there. But people want to see that he's healthy and not going the way of Mike Lowell. That's the key to the whole thing."
In 2010, Lowell was forced to retire at age 36 because of a degenerative hip, after playing just 73 games that season for the Sox.
What could the Sox expect in return for Youkilis, who is in the last year of his contract and has a $1 million buyout connected to the club option of $13 million in 2013? All the evaluators agreed it would depend on how much of the contract the Sox would be willing to absorb.
"They'd have to eat at least half, but I think they could get some good young pitching back," one said. "Again, if Youkilis is healthy.
"But there are teams that are looking for a hitter, and Youkilis can play either corner, although I think he might be better back at first. The Giants need a bat, the Phillies are looking for a third baseman, there are a lot of teams that could use more offense."
There was only lukewarm support for the idea of trying Middlebrooks in the outfield.
"You don't want to embarrass the kid," one said.
And you can almost certainly rule out the idea of Youkilis agreeing to a move to the outfield. He gallantly agreed to play left field in Yankee Stadium when Terry Francona was short on outfielders but had a miserable time of it. Nobody wants to see that again.
One other factor to consider: There is little love lost between Valentine and Youkilis after the manager criticized him last month and Youkilis didn't let him off the hook even as Valentine insisted he was misunderstood. Valentine may well prefer the kid, and Youkilis, despite the huge ties to Boston he has forged as both player and philanthropist, almost certainly would be open to moving on. He even indicated as much in an interview last year, when he mused openly about finishing his career in his hometown of Cincinnati.
But here's a novel thought: If the Sox do end up trading Youkilis, maybe they could do so without resorting to the kind of potshots endured by Terry Francona, Nomar Garciaparra and Mo Vaughn, among others, on their way out of town. His performance and his effort while he was here deserve no less.
Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.