Months ago I talked about the possibility of Kevin Youkilis being traded. It was a move that the team should have made in the offseason when such things are easier to explain and easier to bear. Losing a guy like Youk is never easy; he has more fire and determination than any ten guys in the league. But this isn’t the Joe Morgan baseball league. One can only go so far on hustle and grit. Sooner or later, the numbers are the deciding factor.
The numbers have been working against Youkilis for several seasons now, eating away at his value.
From 2004 to 2010, Youkilis posted a steadily increasing OPS that climbed from .780 all the way to an elite .975. Never a top-end power threat, Youkilis was nevertheless good for 25 dingers a season at his best, and that was more than enough in the Red Sox lineups he helped anchor. Youkilis was the on-base guy. The Greek God of Walks, though by now his lack of Greek heritage has been well documented. Youkilis was a near-perfect foil for the slugging might of David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez, a larger, rougher version of the scrappy Dustin Pedroia. Youkilis, in many ways, symbolized the Sox.
From 2006 through 2009 he was solid and reliable in the field as well, averaging 143 games per season. In 2010 he got hurt and missed 60 games. In 2011 he got hurt and missed 40. This year? He got hurt and missed nearly a month.
That wonderful .975 OPS tumbled to .833 in 2011 and currently sits at .670 in 2012. Attribute some of this year’s struggles to his back trouble, it still can’t hide the reality.
Youkilis is a guy with a big frame who plays hard. He has a stop and go swing that looks painful. He’s 33 years old, and if the recent past is any indication, the remainder of his career will be fraught with injuries.
The one number that hasn’t slid is his price tag. He earned more than $9 million in 2010, north of $12M in 2011, and $12M this year. Boston held an option year in 2013 valued at $13M. Guys who make that kind of money need to be consistent. Dependable. They can’t spend a month out of every six on the D.L. And unfortunately, that became Youk’s reality.
Trading Youkilis was a good decision at the big-picture level. The deal had to be made. Where the Red Sox failed was in its execution.
With an untenable option (or free agency with a $1M buyout) looming, Boston should have pulled the trigger and moved Youkilis while his value was high. He was coming off of a still-respectable season, but the clues were there that his career was on the downslope. Some team would have seen the remaining upside; a glass-half-full club would have taken on his salary and given him a shot to bounce back. Sure, the return might have been limited, but the Sox could have spared themselves $12M in salary and used that cash to get some pitching.
The winter trade didn’t materialize, of course. Instead, Boston made a series of fairly ineffectual decisions. Some looked good enough at the time, though none resulted in bringing the team what it really needed. As the pitching imploded through the first weeks of the 2012 season, Boston still failed to make a move. There was a window early in the year when a healthy Youkilis might have been shopped. He had gotten off to a slow start, but nothing that would have erased his proven production from previous campaigns.
Then Youkilis really struggled. His back became an issue. He looked old, slow, incapable of fielding the tough third base position. And in the end, he was Wally Pipp-ed by prospect Will Middlebrooks, whose early arrival was a matter of necessity.
Injuries had worn the team down to a nub. The outfield was being manned by backups’ backups. Adrian Gonzalez was struggling to produce (still is). The Mike Aviles/ Nick Punto shortstop experiment was yielding a predictable outcome. The rotation was ghastly and the bullpen only slightly better. Middlebrooks had to be called up for a host of reasons, and he didn’t waste the chance.
As it became clear that the kid needed to play, thoughts of what to do with Youk became more focused. Could he play the outfield? Could the team possibly carry a $12 million pinch-hitter? The answers were obvious, and the trade that should have happened (twice) but never did was back on the table.
Unfortunately, Youk’s value was at an all-time low. The injury and his poor numbers combined to make him look nearly untradeable. Still,, the thought was that some club would see through the dark clouds of the present and look toward a brighter tomorrow. And of course, organizations were interested. But when it finally happened, the deal wasn’t at all what the team needed.
In exchange for their erstwhile All-Star, Boston gets a relief pitcher who can’t handle major league bats, a utility man whose flash of brilliance has faded into textbook mediocrity, and worst of all, a bill of $5.5 million for Youk’s remaining salary in 2012. The Chicago White Sox gave up two marginal players and only have to pay Youk $1.5M of the $7M still due.
Management 101: Don’t give up something for nothing. What exactly did Boston gain here? A trade like this one is typically designed to bring some potential talent back to the club, even if it is unproven, or to dump salary. The Red Sox did neither.
They will now continue to pay Youkilis’ salary. They will likely send newly-acquired Zach Stewart to the Pawtucket bullpen. They will install Brent Lillibridge firmly on the bench.
What has happened to the Boston team that made all the right moves? Lately, the decisions have been disastrous.
Letting Jonathan Papelbon walk this winter looked like a good call. But replacing him with Mark Melancon and Andrew Bailey hasn’t panned out. Moreover, the Sox surrendered Josh Reddick and Jed Lowrie, among others, to get those relief arms. In the end, both Melancon and Bailey might prove to be valuable bullpen arms, but Lowrie and Reddick are hitting extremely well. Lowrie, for his part, always hit well when he was healthy. This might have been the season to give him a full-time opportunity rather than shipping him off for a questionable return. And parting with Reddick was a surprise as well, though there was no way of knowing how badly the roster would miss him due to myriad injuries.
Then came the choice to make Daniel Bard a starter. There was every way of knowing that such a move was unwise, and yet the team did it anyway.
And now a Youkilis trade that send a fan favorite packing in exchange for a pair of guys who will, in all probability, rarely take the field.
Youk needed to be traded. But the deal had to be the right one, and this wasn’t it.
Could it have been that Chicago was the only bidder? Possibly, but if that’s the case then it’s worth noting that Boston brought that on itself with how and when it chose to put Youkilis on the block. Having Middlebrooks to fall back on is all well and good, but the end result of this latest chapter in Red Sox history can’t leave any of us feeling warm and fuzzy.
I want to close by wishing Youkilis nothing but success on the South side. It’s easy to write about how he should have been moved. It’s easy to cite reasons, both business and baseball, why shopping him was necessary. That doesn’t mean I wanted him gone.
Like Youkilis, I was born in Cincinnati. I have remained a fan of the local teams and therefore knew of Youk back when he attended the University of Cincinnati. The Bearcats aren’t among the NCAA’s baseball elite, but Youk was a standout.
By the time he rounded into an All-Conference and All-American player, I had been living in New England, mostly on Cape Cod, for many years. Youkilis played Cape Cod League ball in the summer after his junior year, and I was there to watch him.
A few years later I was in Portland, watching Youk play for the Double A Sea Dogs. Not too long thereafter, I was in Fenway watching him man first and third.
In short, I haven’t seen any player as much as I’ve seen Youkilis, and losing him will be an adjustment. Not just for me, but for tens of thousands of fans. Best of luck, Kevin. You will be missed.