Baltimore, MD, USA; Baltimore Orioles second baseman Ryan Flaherty (3) dives back to first base safely in the second inning as Boston Red Sox first baseman Kevin Youkilis (20) does not get the throw in time at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Mandatory Credit: Joy R. Absalon-US PRESSWIRE
Adrian Gonzalez has started the last two Red Sox games in right field, a necessity borne out of the absence of Cody Ross, Ryan Sweeney, and another entire outfield's worth of outfielders. He's been able to do so thanks to the return of Kevin Youkilis, who switched to his old position of first base, in order to allow rookie Will Middlebrooks to stay at third base, where he had been playing while Youkilis was on his own disabled list stint.
That was on the road, though, and in most parks on the road, right field is going to be a simpler task than Fenway's. This is why it's unlikely Gonzalez is going to play in right field often, if at all, in the upcoming series against the Tampa Bay Rays. Left field isn't an option, either, as Gonzalez's limited outfield experience is in right, and asking him to bounce around from one no-comfort zone to the next likely isn't in his best interests. Let's not forget that a switch to left would also mean Daniel Nava either needs to go to right (possibly an even worse idea than Gonzalez out there in terms of defensive capabilities), or would need to sit (given his production since his recall, this isn't an option).
This means Gonzalez will be back at first, while some combination of Scott Podsednik, Marlon Byrd, and Che-Hsuan Lin will cover center and right field duties until Sweeney returns from the 7-day DL and his concussion. As for who plays third base on these days, there's no clear answer. General manager Ben Cherington said weeks ago that Kevin Youkilis did not lose his job by getting injured, despite the production of Will Middlebrooks in his absence, meaning you would think it's Youkilis who will get the bulk of the playing time. By the same token, though, the organization doesn't want to have Middlebrooks sitting on the bench, when he could either be playing in Boston or Pawtucket full-time. This is a quandary without an obvious or satisfactory solution.
You can't actually throw games out from the record, but Youkilis hasn't looked as lost as he did during the first three games of the season, in which he went a combined 0-for-12. He was working on bringing his swing back to where it used to be, as NESN's continued "before-and-after" pop-ups during Youkilis at-bats reminded us. Since his first hit of the year in game four, he hasn't stopped, and is now at .293/.373/.483 with three homers and six walks in the 67 plate appearances since. Small sample, sure, and broken into an even smaller sample than his tiny full-season line. But the point remains: Youkilis has looked better after a terrible start, and has started things right since returning from the DL, too.
Middlebrooks has his own small-sample discussions worth mentioning. He started out hot, saw secondary stuff tossed his way and started to slip, but as of late has picked things up once again. He's now at .296/.321/.568 over 84 plate appearances. Based on Youk's (healthy) track record and Middlebrooks' early success, there's no real wrong answer here, complicating matters further. Middlebrooks has the better glove, but Youkilis has a longer track record of sustained success, and while health is an issue, another Youkilis injury would just mean Middlebrooks slots back in, anyway. That makes health something of a non-starter in any argument for one versus the other.
There is, of course, the idea of boosting Youkilis' trade value so that once some outfielders are back, he can be dealt for help or prospects, and that might be what wins the day, so long as he keeps on producing.
This should have been simple, with Middlebrooks going back down to Pawtucket while Youkilis showed if he had anything left in the tank. But injuries to the outfield have made it complicated. The Red Sox aren't saying much about their plan going forward, but not starting Gonzalez in right each time out tells us that the plan is not to have all three of these players in the lineup each time out. That's likely best in the long run, as far as Gonzalez is concerned, but it does make things less simple than they were just a week ago.
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This actually segues back into the Youkilis trade bit. Under the new CBA, were Youkilis dealt, he would not bring his new club any draft picks, as he wasn't with them from Opening Day onward. However, since he has that $13 million option for 2013, a team willing to take the risk on him would be eligible for picks after that expired, although it would require a hefty qualifying offer in place of the arbitration offer that was in use in prior CBAs. It all depends on whether or not he can stay healthy and hit, and those are two significant ifs. But that's something to remember both this summer, and in regards to the new CBA, as if he had a new team, they would at least have these options.
Keith Law has released his updated top 25 prospects list over at ESPN.com, and while there are no Red Sox on there, there's still good news to be had. In something of a "Just Missed" section, Law foreshadows his summer's Top 50 list, and says to keep an eye out for both Jackie Bradley Jr. and Matt Barnes. It's likely, if you've been paying attention to their performances, that you didn't even need me to tell you which prospects he was going to include from Boston's ranks. But it's still satisfying to see national recognition for two players that have done nothing but produce above-and-beyond expectations for two months.