It's been rumored for much of the season since Will Middlebrooks arrived in the majors, and Kevin Youkilis has finally been dealt. The Chicago White Sox, who have had to deal with the glorious inadequacy of both Brent Morel and Orlando Hudson at third in 2012, should be satisfied with Youkilis, whether he returns to form, or just continues to hover around the 700 OPS mark. That might sound surprising, but White Sox at the hot corner have a combined line of .168/.243/.224 in 2012: even a diminished Youkilis is a serious upgrade.
With Middlebrooks tearing up both Pawtucket and the majors in the same season, though, Boston didn't have the same kind of need for Youkilis. After weeks of trade discussion with half-a-dozen teams, the Red Sox received Zach Stewart and Brent Lillibridge in return for Youkilis.
Lillibridge isn't that exciting, unless he plans to replicate his 2011 during his time with Boston. He was a top 100 prospect according to Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus, heading into the 2007 season, but he never achieved that level of play in the majors. Instead, the 28-year-old is now with his fourth organization, and has moved from a career as a middle infielder to that of a utility bat that can setup anywhere from center field to an infield corner.
Those types of players have their uses -- especially when they slug over .500, as Lillibridge did in 2011 -- but for the most part, this particular utility player has done very little at the plate. There's a very good chance he's just a throw-in to this deal who can be useful at the right place and time, someone who can sit on Boston's bench for the next few weeks until the Crawfordian and Ellsburian cavalry arrive, and then he will be designated and assigned to Pawtucket -- off of the 25- and 40-man rosters, but still in the organization as a depth piece.
The real draw here is Zach Stewart, despite his uninspiring major-league time.
Stewart was drafted by the Reds in the third round of the 2008 draft, and has already been involved in his share of transactions. He was part of the Scott Rolen and Edwin Encarnacion deadline swap of 2009, and the Blue Jays shipped him off to Chicago just two years later, a few days before July 31, in a package that netted Toronto Edwin Jackson briefly, before he was shipped to St. Louis.
Stewart has never outright dominated in the minors, though he's also never quite settled into a defined role. He was a reliever in college, converted back to starting during the 2009 season by Cincinnati, shifted back to the pen upon arriving in Triple-A, then the Blue Jays kept him there once they acquired him. He started in 2010 and 2011, for both the Jays and the White Sox, but the latter shifted him to relief in 2012, where he has struggled to miss bats, and has seen far too many balls in play go for hits -- despite just 1.2 walks per nine, Stewart was allowing 13.5 baserunners per nine innings pitched on the season.
His command has generally suffered out of the pen -- Stewart is odd in that he's often found more success professionally as a starter, despite supposedly being better-suited to relief since he was drafted. Boston plans to use him in the rotation at Pawtucket, though, in the long-term, whether this is simply to give him more time to work out the kinks, as Boston often does with their future relievers, or because they still have faith in him as a major-league starter, is to be seen.
He's now 25, and far removed from any prospect status he might once have held. He does have a deep repertoire, though, insofar as he has plenty of options to choose from: four-seamer, sinker, slider, change-up, and the occasional cutter or curve, too. None of those pitches have been particularly adept at missing bats in the majors, but they are all on the positive side of the ledger in terms of inducing grounders.
Stewart brings to mind the Clayton Mortensen acquisition, for multiple reasons. He was part of the return in a deal involving an established Red Sox player. His results, to that point, were not inspiring. Both players had been moved to multiple organizations, with no one quite figuring them out. They have similar repertoires, with an emphasis on grounders.
This doesn't mean Stewart is automatically going to be like Mortensen, in that he becomes a successful endeavor of the scouting department and pitching coaches, who have made him useful to this point in 2012. But that's the idea here: an arm that hasn't delivered on the promise it holds, in a trade might look better to the team who still sees that promise, and possibly, a way to unlock it.
He's already on the left side of the rubber, as Mortensen is now after Boston acquired him. With his sinker, slider, and change-up, the first base side of the rubber makes sense. R.J. Anderson discussed this earlier in 2012:
One talent evaluator I spoke to fingered sinkerballers, citing the angles the move creates against same-handed hitters. Going back to Peterson's Hudson move, a slide towards the first-base side gave Hudson free rein to throw his fastball and let the run take it to the inside corner against righties. The evaluator also pointed out that a better angle on secondary stuff away from the batter is an added benefit.
This hasn't been enough to make Stewart a useful commodity, but getting Stewart into Bob McClure's line of sight at some point couldn't hurt. Sinkerballer Aaron Cook swears that McClure is the reason he's who he is, and is a major part of his signing with Boston in 2012. The tweaks or complete overhauls he's made to the mechanics and landings for Andrew Miller, Mortensen, Felix Doubront, and others have all been huge in 2012.
It's not all McClure, of course, as the organization was doing this before he was pitching coach: throw in how Franklin Morales has been pitching since Boston acquired him in 2011, and it stands to reason that some patience with fixing Stewart is merited. Stewart is a lottery ticket, and nothing more than that, but Boston has been doing well on those as of late.
It's not a fantastic return, by any means, but if Youkilis were worth that, he wouldn't be traded: he'd be Boston's starting third baseman, and Will Middlebrooks would still be in Pawtucket. With some of the offers that have been floating around as of late -- James Loney for Youkilis, a big bag of nothing that costs the Red Sox both Youkilis and cash, and so on -- Stewart and Lillibridge look a bit better, in context.
Let's not forget that, under the new collective bargaining agreement, the White Sox won't be able to get draft picks as compensation for losing Youkilis after the season -- a player needs to be on one team' roster all season to be eligible, in order to stem the tide of late-season acquisitions of Type-A and Type-B players that clubs like the Red Sox were turning into future draft picks. That's been factored into the price of his acquisition -- under the old rules, Chicago would have at least had the option of arbitration for Youkilis, but that's not on the table anymore.
Had Boston held on to Youkilis for the rest of 2012 rather than dealing him for this or a similar package, they could have declined his option and offered him the qualifying offer that would net them draft picks, should someone match it. But, were he to continue to decline, he wouldn't have been worth that qualifier, leaving Boston either stuck with Youkilis for another season (and at a roughly $12.5 million price), or without the ability to get draft picks in exchange for losing him. This gives them something in return, and also eliminates the risk of holding on to him for a few weeks more and praying for continued health in the hopes of finding a somewhat better offer.
It's not the optimal return one would want for a player with the history of Kevin Youkilis. But, with that said, that player might not exist anymore, after years of injuries and aging taking their toll on his performance. This is a deal that could very well work out for both clubs, with no clear winner nor loser. That is, unless you count Will Middlebrooks and Kevin Youkilis, who both get to start in the majors in 2012 because of the deal.