With only two spots predicted to be available on the Red Sox bench, the on-base machine known as Kevin Youkilis is on the fence between Boston and Pawtucket.
Youkilis is already a fan favorite in New England after playing in just 72 games with Boston last season. Youkilis started his season hot after a call-up on May 15th when Bill Mueller had an injury that kept him out for a few games. A few games later, Mueller was sidelined with a knee injury that allowed Youkilis to stay with the big club and get a lot of valuable at-bats.
I want to say that I'm a big fan of Youkilis'. I remember walking into my kitchen where the game was on last year and looking up at the TV. I see at the plate this unfamiliar stance and then quickly realized it was him. It was his first at-bat and soon there after I saw his first home run in the bigs. I liked him before that moment, but I knew that I'd always root for him after that moment.
What is Youkilis' role this season? Mueller appears to be healthy after knee surgery during the off-season. He's way ahead of schedule according to the coaches, and is slotted to be the starting third baseman in New York on opening day.
Youkilis has two options this season. He either starts the season on the bench behind a currently healthy Mueller. Or he starts the season at Pawtucket and gets at-bats every single game at third base. The question becomes very simple: is he more valuable on the bench in Boston, or starting in Pawtucket?
Let's run through the scenario's a little more in-depth.
Scenario one has Youkilis starting in Boston. He sits on the bench watching, with the majority of his at-bats coming on days to give Mueller some rest at third base. He'll get more at-bats, obviously, if Mueller is hurt or Mark Bellhorn is hurt and Francona decides to move Mueller to second base. Youkilis will also find himself pinch-hitting late in the game, maybe for Trot Nixon against a lefty, or some other favorable pitching match-up.
Even if Mueller is hurt, there are other options to replace him rather than Youkilis. Francona could move Bellhorn to third base and have Ramon Vazquez play second, or Vazquez himself could start at third base. The situation at third base isn't dire enough to have Youkilis sacrifice at-bats "just in case" Mueller goes down with a sudden injury.
Scenario two has Youkilis starting the season at triple-A Pawtucket. Youkilis would be the everyday third baseman and probably hit somewhere in the two to five spot in the lineup. He certainly won't be at Pawtucket for the whole season, but if he starts there he'll get more at-bats in a month than what he would in three months in Boston.
Youkilis has the ability to be an everyday player in the major leagues. But with the depth of the Red Sox's bench and all the other options to fill in at third base, Youkilis has a better shot to improve if he starts the season with Pawtucket. Is it fair? Not really, because Youkilis deserves to be with Boston. It is the right decision, though. Having Youkilis stay fresh at Pawtucket is more important than sitting on the bench, getting to play a game every week or so.