Minneapolis, MN, USA: Boston Red Sox third baseman Kevin Youkilis (20) looks on during batting practice before a game against the Minnesota Twins at Target Field. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-US PRESSWIRE
The Red Sox have had a crowded disabled list since before a single game was played in 2012, but a few notable names are working their way back from injury in the middle of May. Kevin Youkilis, placed on the 15-day DL retroactive to April 29 with back trouble, was the designated hitter for the PawSox on Wednesday, while Daisuke Matsuzaka is working his way back from Tommy John surgery performed in June of 2011 at the same level.
Youkilis is no stranger to injury -- he has 27 entries in Baseball Prospectus's injury database since the start of the 2010 season. That's Chipper Jones-esque, and it's the only way in which being likened to Chipper isn't a compliment*. This is his third rehab assignment, the first two coming in 2009 and in 2011, and while those were both short affairs totaling four games altogether, the Red Sox might not be in as much of a rush to get him back to the majors this time, thanks to the production of Will Middlebrooks.
*When I used to write for Baseball Prospectus, I was part of the injury coverage team. I advised that we named the injury projection system "CHIPPER", a joke that, in retrospect, isn't as funny when Youkilis is basically the as problematic, especially since that is the name in use today.
That being said, Middlebrooks is not a finished product, and he's one who has struggled a little more as opposing pitchers have begun to feed him more off-speed and secondary pitches, rather than just a steady diet of fastballs. He could use more time in Triple-A to get used to these types of pitches, even if it's hard to imagine that right now while his numbers are still as impressive as they are.
Because of this, and the past work of that rare but wondrous creature, the Healthy Kevin Youkilis, it makes sense for Boston to see what Youk still has in the tank, if anything. And, if nothing else, to do that so they can see what his trade value will look like a month from now. Middlebrooks will have another month of seasoning under his belt, and likely be more prepared for the majors than he is today because of it, while the Red Sox will have figured out if the end of the Youkilis era starts now or later.
Before any of that is sorted out, though, Youkilis needs to complete this rehab assignment with his back intact. He was 1-2 with a walk and a double in his first game back in action, but he'll need more of that to persuade Red Sox fans who have already converted to the Church of Middlebrooks in the last few weeks.
As for Matsuzaka, his future is a little less clear -- it can't be broken up into possible scenarios in the same way that Youk's can. That's because, according to manager Bobby Valentine, via conversations with Dice-K, the right-hander is not ready to be back in the majors just yet.
If he's not ready to be in the majors, and at a time where Clay Buchholz looks like he's starting to come around, it starts to look like he lost his opportunity to break into the rotation, even in the short term. The Red Sox aren't about to derail the Felix Doubront and Daniel Bard experiments in order to get a few months of Dice-K in, at a time when his future is likely with another organization thanks to free agency that begins this off-season. It's not quite clear who is the first line of defense as a backup starter should someone suffer an injury, Aaron Cook or Matsuzaka. It's an issue complicated by Cook's injury, Matsuzaka's rehab not going exactly as planned as of late, and the June 1 opt-out in Cook's deal.
Alex Speier suggests that Dice-K's rehab window might be renewed, in order to give him up to another 30 days at Pawtucket to work things out. Normally, rehab assignments are 30 days thanks to the players' union, who don't want to see major-league players held down in the minors longer than necessary after an injury. Dice-K is a pending free agent, though, and if he doesn't feel ready, he's just as likely to want to spend time making himself right as the Red Sox are. Given his past, the last thing Matsuzaka needs is to rush things and pitch poorly before he makes himself available for his second MLB contract and first real free agency.
It would require a delay in his rehab in order to get approval to extend it, but all that takes is an injury or discomfort to hold him back. Given it doesn't sound like he's settled on exactly which mechanics work best for his elbow, and he's already had a start pushed back with neck pain, it shouldn't be difficult to make those seven days happen.