Commentary

Youkilis should get job back

Updated: May 18, 2012, 11:53 AM ET
By Jeremy Lundblad | ESPNBoston.com

Looking for precedent in Will Middlebrooks' torrid start leads to two conclusions:

1. Few have shown this kind of power so soon into a major league career.
2. Doing so is far from a guarantee of future success.

All signs point to a long, successful career for Middlebrooks. He's provided a much-needed spark to Boston's lineup, exceeding even the expectations placed on the system's top prospect.

With free agency looming for Kevin Youkilis, Middlebrooks was widely expected to take over at third base in 2013. But one of the most prolific starts in Boston Red Sox history calls for that timetable to be reassessed.

Yet a closer look at the precedent for his start doesn't bring up the kinds of names one might think.

For example, the last player before Middlebrooks with at least four home runs and 13 RBIs in his first 10 career games was Mark Quinn in 1999. He only lasted four seasons in the majors.

Over the last 90 years, only three other third basemen have hit four home runs in their first 10 games: Dick Gray (1958) Jose Oliva (1994) and Gary Gaetti (1981). Gray and Oliva combined for 25 career home runs. Sam Horn and Billy Conigliaro were the previous two Red Sox with four home runs through 10 career games. But 25 years ago, Horn never lived up to his fast start, hitting just .148 over the next two seasons prior to his release.

Mark Quinn. Jose Oliva. Sam Horn.

Let's be clear: There's no reason to think Middlebrooks will follow that path. But those names call for caution in measuring his worth based on a dozen games.

Already, Middlebrooks is going through his first mini-slump as pitchers make adjustments. He has nine strikeouts in his last 15 at-bats. That includes multiple strikeouts in four straight games. The last Red Sox rookie to do that? Sam Horn. So how do the Red Sox deal with the impending roster crunch when Youkilis returns from the disabled list? Can the Red Sox afford to take Middlebrooks' bat out of the lineup?

It's easy to go with the young, exciting player. But Boston would be well-served by a patient approach, remembering just how effective a healthy Youkilis can be. If he can return to form, the Red Sox will be in a far better position from a trade standpoint.

Middlebrooks is the ultimate answer, but in the short term, Youkilis should get his job back.

Selling low on Youkilis?
Why give Youkilis his job back? Simply put, Youkilis' trade value is at an all-time low due to injury and poor performance. If a trade is the ultimate answer, the Sox need to give Youkilis the chance to show other teams that he still has it.

From 2008 through the first half of 2011, Youkilis had the fourth- highest OPS in the majors. The only players ahead of him -- Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera, Joey Votto -- are arguably the three best hitters in the majors.

In other words, for three and a half years, Youkilis had a higher OPS than Middlebrooks has had in his historic start.

That's the kind of hitter you build your lineup around, not give away. Right now, thanks to his struggles since the midway point of 2011 and his health, the Red Sox likely can't get much for Youkilis.

Since the 2011 All-Star break, Youkilis is hitting .205, the fourth- lowest average in the AL in that span. His .652 OPS is more than 300 points below his pace from the previous three and a half years.

His struggles are most apparent versus righties, against whom he's hit .171 since the 2011 midpoint. Lest there be any doubt that Youkilis' struggles are injury-related, consider how much trouble he's had getting around on fastballs. He's hit .155 on fastballs from righties since the 2011 break.

Without the threat of his bat, Youkilis has seen a dramatic decline in walks. In his past 68 plate appearances against righties, he's drawn just one walk.

Does that sound like a player who will garner worthwhile offers?

Of course, much of Youkilis' struggles can likely be attributed to injuries. Dating back to last year, he's played in just 31 of Boston's last 83 games. And even when in the lineup, it's doubtful he's felt healthy for any of those games.

Just as he needs to show teams that he can still hit, Youkilis needs to prove that he's healthy. This is the fourth straight year that he's hit the disabled list with injuries ranging from his oblique to his thumb to a sports hernia to his current back issues.

Youkilis is a free agent at the end of the season, and the writing is on the wall in Boston thanks to Middlebrooks. As difficult as it might be to sit the rookie phenom, the better long-term solution might be to give Youkilis the chance to prove himself again.

Potential trade partners for Youkilis
When it does come time to trade Youkilis, where should the Red Sox look? Plenty of contenders need a boost offensively, particularly at third base. In theory, there should be no shortage of suitors for a healthy Youkilis.

Consider that all National League third basemen are hitting a combined .247, the lowest of any position. The three NL teams getting the least amount of production at third base could all be considered contenders. Of those, the Reds and Dodgers would appear to be logical destinations, as baseball sources recently told ESPN The Magazine's Buster Olney.

The Reds have an NL-worst .563 OPS at third base. Scott Rolen is hitting just .176. Rolen is 37 years old and was placed on the disabled list Saturday; his time may be done.

While the Reds may hope Rolen returns to form, there's little reason for the Dodgers to expect production at third. Juan Uribe landed on the disabled list on Monday but hasn't produced even when healthy. Since 2011, he's hitting .214 in 350 at-bats. Justin Sellers and Adam Kennedy aren't the solution for a contender.

The Dodgers are widely thought to be ready to open their wallets next offseason. But with a surprising start that's led to the best record in the majors, the Dodgers might decide to act now. Youkilis' versatility could also come into play, as the Dodgers continue to get below-average production from James Loney at first base.

Ultimately, the NL West race might determine where Youkilis ends up. The Dodgers, with a six-game lead entering Friday, are the most obvious suitor. But the Giants remain in dire need of offense, while the Diamondbacks (Ryan Roberts) and Rockies (Chris Nelson) need more production at third if they plan to make a pennant run.

Jeremy Lundblad

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