Commentary

Kevin Youkilis just had to move on

Grit and emotion will be missed, but Red Sox needed room for Will Middlebrooks

Updated: June 25, 2012, 2:36 PM ET
By Gordon Edes | ESPNBoston.com

BOSTON -- This was the April day after Bobby Valentine had told a TV interviewer that he didn't think Kevin Youkilis was "as physically or emotionally into the game as he has been in the past," words for which Youkilis decided no apology would ever be acceptable.

That same morning, general manager Ben Cherington was told in no uncertain terms that Youkilis was willing to being traded, if that's what the Red Sox wanted to do.

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"I just hope," a close friend of Youkilis said that day, "that they don't bury him the way they have so many other guys on their way out of town."

We don't know what recriminations may yet follow Youkilis on his way to Chicago, where he will be joining the White Sox after Sunday's trade by the Red Sox. Whether he will escape the muck that attached itself to Terry Francona and Nomar Garciaparra and Mo Vaughn upon their departures remains to be seen. But we already have an idea about what kind of mindset Youkilis will be taking with him to Chicago.

You could find it in two places. One was in the words of White Sox general manager Kenny Williams, who told reporters about his conversation with Youkilis following the trade.

"I can't tell you exactly what he said," Williams said. "He wants to come in and he wants to prove some people wrong."

The other was contained in tweets from his brother, Scott, a chef and owner of a San Francisco restaurant. Just hours before the trade was announced, Scott Youkilis tweeted that he hoped his brother was headed to Chicago and followed that with, "I wonder why? Bobby V is a joke."

Perhaps Valentine never intended for Youkilis to take his words personally. Perhaps he was merely voicing, in a way as politically incorrect as humanly possible, what he saw in spring training and that others came late to recognizing. That as raw as he was, rookie Will Middlebrooks was a better option for the Red Sox at third base than Youkilis, who did little to dissuade Bobby V of that notion in spring training, when he hit .195 with just one extra-base hit.

[+] EnlargeKevin Youkilis
Winslow Townson/Getty ImagesThe value of Kevin Youkilis, shown hugging Dustin Pedroia, transcended his numbers, which have been in steady decline.

The contrast between Middlebrooks and Youkilis could hardly have been more pronounced this past week. Middlebrooks, it was noted by the Elias Sports Bureau, had put up numbers in his first 40 games -- .331 average, 9 home runs, 33 RBIs -- last accomplished, among players in their first 40, by one Albert Pujols. Middlebrooks coming into Sunday's game against the Atlanta Braves had hit safely in each of his past six at-bats with runners in scoring position, and his .432 average with RISP was the highest in the majors.

Youkilis, meanwhile, came into Sunday's game batting .174 (8-for-46) in June with no home runs and one RBI in 14 games. One major league scout for a team that had entertained trading for Youkilis said he'd never seen Youkilis' swing look worse. And there was further friction with Valentine, the manager telling reporters that he'd told the veteran his playing time would be cut for Middlebrooks, Youkilis saying the next day that conversation never took place.

With the White Sox winners of just five of their past 16 games, falling out of first place in the AL Central, and ranking last in all significant offensive categories at third base, where they were playing converted second baseman Orlando Hudson, the time had come to move on Youkilis.

Just as the time had come for Cherington to eliminate the one obvious source of great discontent in the Boston clubhouse, and reduce the lineup shuffling that had Adrian Gonzalez playing right field or Middlebrooks sitting.

"Kevin has been an everyday player for pretty much his entire career," Cherington told reporters Sunday night. "With the way Middlebrooks has been playing, Middlebrooks needs to be in the lineup. That's pretty clear."

The Red Sox admittedly did not get a lot back: A maybe in right-handed pitcher Zach Stewart, who as recently as 2010 was ranked the No. 1 prospect of the Toronto Blue Jays but is already on his fourth big league organization (he'll report to Triple-A Pawtucket), and a spare part in Brent Lillibridge, who can play both the infield and outfield -- where he is an excellent defender -- and whose right-handed bat may mean the Red Sox are looking for an upgrade on Darnell McDonald.

And even though they are picking up roughly $5 million of the remaining $7 million owed Youkilis, the Red Sox get about $2 million in salary relief.

The stats would argue that the White Sox are receiving a player in decline, a player whose WAR (wins above replacement) went from a career high of 6.3 in 2009 to 5.1 in 2010 to 3.7 in 2011 to 0.1 this season, whose ferocious style of play had taken too great a toll on his body, making him an old 33.

But if there is one thing Boston came to appreciate about Youkilis, whose departure leaves David Ortiz as the last remaining player who was here in 2004, it was this: Even while putting up numbers that twice resulted in top-six finishes in the MVP voting (third in 2008, sixth in 2009), and an on-base percentage of .393 from 2005 to 2011 that ranked him fifth among all right-handed hitters in that span, Youkilis transcended the numbers.

The White Sox are likely to see what Youkilis' college coach in Cincinnati, Brian Cleary, saw that none of the big schools, never mind big league scouts, saw in this chubby kid with a chip on his shoulder.

"He had a sick determination that most guys don't have," Cleary once told me. "He was told so many times, in so many places, that he wasn't good enough, he took it very personally.

"There were times we thought, 'We've got to calm him down.' He was very, very driven. Every at-bat was life and death, but that's why he is where he is. He wasn't athletic, a tools guy. He was a grinder, a gritty guy."

Yankees captain Derek Jeter told ESPN's Buster Olney on Saturday that he couldn't imagine the Red Sox without Youkilis, who was so disliked/respected by the Bombers that Joba Chamberlain once threw two straight pitches over his head, in addition to the 14 times he was hit by a pitch from a Yankees hurler.

"Kevin Youkilis cares like no other teammate I ever played with," respected veteran Alex Cora tweeted Sunday night. "I bet it was a tough day for him, but he'll be fine in #Chitown."

Youkilis' farewell at Fenway would be hard to top. He tripled in his last at-bat, was removed for a pinch runner to a standing ovation, received heartfelt embraces from teammates and heard one last tumultuous "Youuukk" during an emotional curtain call.

But he probably has an encore in mind: Coming to the Fens next month, in a White Sox uniform, and proving everyone wrong yet again. He may not get another curtain call, but would you be shocked to see him point into the Red Sox dugout?

Gordon Edes

Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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