If you’ve been tuning in to Boston-area sports you’ve probably come across the first real drama of the year in the Red Sox clubhouse. New manager Bobby Valentine decided to invite controversy to the party by questioning Kevin Youkilis’ level of mental and physical dedication.
On Sunday’s edition of WHDH’s Sports Xtra, Valentine said, “I don’t think he’s as physically or emotionally into the game as he has been in the past for some reason. But [on Saturday] it seemed, you know, he’s seeing the ball well, got those two walks, got his on-base percentage up higher than his batting average, which is always a good thing, and he’ll move on from there.”
It’s unclear as to what Valentine thought could be gained from this. If he was looking to light a fire under Youk, he did it in exactly the wrong way. Youkilis has never needed any help being an emotional player. The guy thrives on angry energy. Since becoming a regular player in the Sox lineup, Youk has been a grind-it-out, blue-collar type of player, dependable (when healthy) and serving as a core member of the franchise. Contrast that with Valentine, a newcomer whose brash style has made waves many times before.
At best it’s an odd statement to make given the personalities involved and the other circumstances surrounding the club at the moment. At worst it’s a direct and effective assault on the team chemistry of an organization that doesn’t need any more challenges.
Many of the veteran Sox didn’t approve of the Valentine hire. Something like this– a perceived low-blow levied against a fan-favorite for no apparent reason– is going to make things much, much worse.
Already Youkilis’ agent has spoken outabout the comments, saying he wouldn’t “dignify [Valentine’s] quotes by responding”, though that was a response in and of itself. Dustin Pedroia had a more extensive reaction, telling the media, “I know that Youk plays as hard as anyone I’ve ever seen in my life. I have his back and his teammates have his back and we know how hard he plays. I don’t really understand what Bobby’s trying to do, but that’s really not the way we go about our stuff here. I’m sure he’ll figure that out soon.”
Responding to a question of whether Valentine’s remarks could be construed as motivational, Pedroia said, “maybe (that works) in Japan or something, but over here in the U.S. we’ve got a three-game winning streak and we want to feel good and keep it rolling. We feel we have a good team and we’ve just got to get each other’s backs and play together. If you don’t do that, I don’t care what sport you’re playing, you’re not going to win. We’ve got Youk’s back. He’s played his ass off for us for a long time. Anytime he steps on the field, he’s a great player. We’re here to win and win with him.”
And of course, Youkilis himself weighed in with some confusion. “That’s not what I see,” Youkilis said about the alleged lack of involvement. “I go out every day and play as hard as I can — take every ground ball in the morning, take every at-bat like it’s my last. I don’t think my game has changed at all. I still get upset with myself. I still get mad.”
For all its faults, the Valentine hire had plenty of upside when Boston’s front office announced the decision. Bobby V is a determined, high-energy manager with an excellent baseball acumen. But in the wake of this needless fiasco, it certainly feels like his people skills need some polishing. And by shooting his mouth off, Valentine is proving his critics right and giving them ammunition that will last for months.
Valentine claims he meant no harm nor offense. He claimed his comments about physical involvement were directed toward flaws he saw in Youk’s swing, and that Youk’s reaction to his slow start seemed to be getting him down, emotionally. Valentine apologized to Youkilis shortly after the comments went public, saying to the media, “there’s a perception that I’m going to criticize players in the paper or the press. So as soon as I (say) something that’s construed as criticism, it’s going to be misinterpreted.”
Fair enough, but it’s awfully hard to misinterpret what feels like a very clear and explicitly shot taken at a player’s level of dedication.
It’s possible that he really was trying to motivate Youk, either directly (by challenging him to step up) or indirectly (by trying to unite the team behind one of its own). But if so, why? The Red Sox started the season 2-5, and after grabbing three straight wins, improved to 4-5. Being one game under .500 is hardly a cause for panic, and though they lost the series finale to finish the first ten games at 4-6, that record doesn’t call for a shake-up of any kind.
The team has been shaken enough by the loss of Jacoby Ellsbury, who will out for roughly six weeks. Alienating Youkilis hardly seems prudent.
Youkilis is a fiery, demonstrative player. His temper has created divisions in the past, such as the time he criticized Ellsbury for not rehabbing with the team following a rib injury in 2010. Even if he can let Valentine’s comments go, what kind of damage have those words done to the foundation of Youkilis’ relationship with the club?
The Red Sox have a pattern of burning bridges; it’s one of the least-appealing aspects of the franchise. They like to throw people under the bus. Even though this could be an isolated incident, it obviously does nothing to counter that reputation.
Frankly, the best move might be to start shopping the 33 year old infielder.
This might sound rash. After all, Youk has done nothing wrong. A slow start through eight games couldn’t be less relevant, and he’s been an integral part of the club for nearly a decade. Seeking to trade him almost feels like a punishment. However, looking at the bigger picture forces us to consider certain realities.
The first of those is that Youk, at 33, will be seeking one more lucrative contract. He’ll be a free agent at the end of the season. It doesn’t make all that much sense for Boston to re-sign him; moving forward he’ll likely be limited to playing first base, which would put Adrian Gonzalez at…DH? Even if we assume that this is David Ortiz’s final season in the uniform, keeping Youkilis long-term might carry more risk than reward.
Youk’s body type will probably work against him. He missed a quarter of the year last year, and 60 games the year before that. Even those of us who are huge Youk fans (and yes, I am) have to face facts. The odds of Youk being healthy enough to turn in full seasons at any position, even DH, are getting slimmer by the year. That said, he still has considerable value and is still and excellent player.
But the second reality at work here is that Boston has other, bigger needs. Will Middlebrooks should get a shot at third, Gonzalez is going to be around for a long time, and others, like Lars Anderson, are waiting in the wings to make their own marks at Fenway. Youkilis is certain to look for more than $10 million per season, and will probably try for a three or four-year deal; financially, that’s not a wise investment for a team that still has major question marks on the mound, at shortstop, and to a lesser extent, behind the plate.
Finally there’s the simple fact that the window for cashing in on Youk’s value is closing. At the end of the year he most likely walks for nothing, and between now and then are sure to be some nagging injuries that sideline him from time to time. Third base is a fairly thin position in major league baseball, and plenty of teams need quality infielders. Reliable, middle-of-the-order type hitters, of which Youk is still one.
Boston can say goodbye to one of its most beloved players in the fall and have nothing to show for it but memories. Or, the club can gauge the interest level and see if it could gain some talent by moving Youkilis. After this schism between Valentine and the players, it might, on some level, even be what’s best for Youkilis.
The key would be to handle it properly. If the front office appears to be dumping Youkilis and standing behind Bobby V, that could cause a significant eruption to occur. The Sox can’t afford that much drama, not with other contract decisions (see Ellsbury’s impending free agency) looming. But if they manage the transaction well– an admittedly big IF– it could be a wise move all around.