Fear and Loathing On Kevin Youkilis’ Return

YOUUUKKK! Wish you were (still) here (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Last night, Kevin Youkilis returned to Fenway Park. Maybe, you’ve heard. There has been some talk about it here and there.

Youkilis was welcomed back the way he deserved to be- with tremendous fanfare, with a standing ovation, with cries of YOUUUUUUK echoing throughout the 100 year old ballpark. It was a touching moment, a reminder that Red Sox fans honor their heroes properly. It was also sad and even disturbing. For me, seeing Kevin Youkilis step up to the plate and take his bizarre batting stance in a White Sox uniform was downright depressing. It is not just that Youk was one of the last two members of the 2004 team that ended the Red Sox championship drought. It is not just that I loved watching him hit, watching him take tough pitches without a second thought, watching him foul off any 3-2 offering that he deemed to be a strike until the pitcher finally wore down and made a mistake, watching him send that mistake into the monster seats or if it wasn't in the zone, leting it go and jogging his way to first. It was disturbing because I still do not really understand why he is gone.

Coming into last night’s game, Youkilis had hit .295/.397/.475 since the trade. After going three-for-four last night, his 2012 batting line is up to .261/.347/.422 for a Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) of 105. His replacement, Will Middlebrooks, missed several games to injury following the trade and has hit just .186/.200/.372 since Youk left. Boston has also played Nick Punto (who is hitting .212/.322/.293 on the season) and Mauro Gomez (who has made three errors in five games) at third in Youk’s absence. They have also designated one player they received for him, Brent Lillibridge, for assignment. The other player, pitcher Zach Stewart, has made four starts at AAA Pawtucket and has struck out just 10 batters in 21.1 innings, while walking five and giving up 26 hits. In the incredible small sample we have so far, this trade looks terrible. Yet, it may look even worse by the end of the year.

While Middlebrooks will almost certain hit better than he has these last three weeks, he was never a lock to outperform Youkilis, given his 4.4% walk rate and his 24.4% strike out rate. Keeping Youkilis as insurance against a Middlebrooks slump would have made sense. Then there is Adrian Gonzalez. Gonzo is having the worst year of his career at the plate, hitting just .288/.332/.427 for a wRC+ of just 100. He is exhibiting a reverse split so far this season, so platooning him with Youk wouldn’t help matters, but keeping Youkilis around in case his performance declined even more, or in case his struggles were due to injury would have made sense.

There is also the general lack of depth on offense.During last night’s game, David Ortiz hurt his ankle rounding second on Adrian Gonzalez’ home run. Ortiz has been the Red Sox best hitter by a huge margin and while the injury is not expected to be serious, it does bring to light just how shallow the Red Sox bench is. Daniel Nava is the obvious choice to replace Ortiz (at least against righties) now that Carl Crawford is back, but if he is needed in left field again (which seems inevitable given Crawford’s arm issues), Gomez, Lars Anderson or Ryan Lavarnway will need to be called up to DH. Should Will Middlebrooks or Adrian Gonzalez miss significant time this year, the options are even less inspiring. Keeping Youkilis around may have complicated the 25- and 40-man rosters and made Bobby Valentine uncomfortable but it would have prevented Mauro Gomez from ever having to man third base and given the team a real backup plan at two positions. As a baseball decision, trading Youkilis never really made any sense.

Of course, it was not a baseball decision it was a personnel decision. With Will Middlebrooks outplaying him, there was no room for Youkilis as an everyday player. After Bobby Valentine’s thoughtless comments on Youk earlier in the season, there was no repairing the relationship between player and manager. There is even some speculation that Youkilis had become a pariah in the clubhouse by "snitching" on the pitchers following last year’s collapse. With Youkilis slumping and obviously without a place in Boston, getting a decent return was not an option. All of this trumped the concerns about depth and pushed Youkilis out of the door for spare parts.

There are those pundits who believe Youkilis was never going to break out of his slump in that environment and they may be right. It may have taken a change of scenery for him to re-emerge as an above average player. I do not know. If that is the case, however, that is much worse than the Red Sox getting rid of him for little back and with practically no one in reserve but Nick Punto. Has Boston really become a place where someone like Kevin Youkilis cannot succeed? Kevin Youkilis may not be the most even-keeled of men, he may not be the easiest guy to get along with, but he is as fierce a competitor as you can find and if there is no place for that, the Red Sox have bigger problems than an underperforming rotation or a lack of infield depth.

Watching Kevin Youkilis take the field for the White Sox was not easy, but watching a Red Sox team that has no place for a player like him would be far more difficult. At some point, maybe we will come to understand how things got to this point and this will all make more sense. Maybe. As he racks up hits against us, I cannot help but think some greater than a hard-nosed third baseman has been lost this year.

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