When Kevin Youkilis was traded to the Chicago White Sox, Adrian Gonzalez was the team's first baseman, and Will Middlbrooks had supplanted Youkilis at third. Middlebrooks is still around at the hot corner, but now first base is open, thanks to the trade that sent Adrian Gonzalez and others (along with their contracts) out west to the Dodgers. This has, understandably, caused many to wonder if a Red Sox and Youkilis reunion is in the works. Should there be one?
First off, Youkilis is technically still under contract. There is a 2013 option for $13 million, and only a $1 million buyout. Even if the White Sox wanted to retain Youkilis for next year, opting out of the deal, and then negotiating a cheaper contract -- possibly incentives-based -- would make more sense than just taking on all $13 million. Especially since the White Sox would use Youkilis at third once again, given they already have two designated hitter/first base types in Paul Konerko and Adam Dunn.
If Chicago exercises the option, this whole line of reasoning is for naught. If, however, they decline the option and attempt to re-sign Youkilis, it gives Boston -- and everyone else -- the opportunity to bring him on board.
Third base is a tougher defensive position than first. It involves more range, quicker reactions, and is harder on the body. Youkilis is a bit injury prone -- okay, very injury prone -- and the extra wear-and-tear placed on him by shifting back to first base likely hasn't done him any favors. The Red Sox don't need a third baseman, though: they need a first baseman again.
Youkilis, in his career, has hit much better at first than at third:
Some caveats apply. Youkilis had not emerged into one of the game's better hitters when he originally played third base, and by the time he moved back to the position, the whole wear-and-tear angle was in play for a player who was older than the first time he handled the hot corner. The samples aren't large enough in 2012 to rely on them too heavily, but in 19 games at first, Youkilis hit .313/.421/.563, and just .226/.324/.390 as a third baseman. Expecting him to be all-world at first is asking a bit much, but intuitively, it would make sense that the 33-year-old Youkilis, a player who has spent a significant amount of his career injured, would perform better at this stage at the position that's less demanding defensively.
We already know Youkilis and Fenway Park get along splendidly. Moving him back to first full-time could help with that. There's also already backup on the roster, in the form of Jerry Sands: should Youkilis miss time, as he seems to do every year since he began to play full-time, Boston could insert Sands at first temporarily. If the injury turns out to be a long-term issue, or Sands isn't going to cut it, Boston has the financial flexibility to find another first baseman to fill the void.
There isn't much of a choice on the current free agent market for "another first baseman." Mike Napoli is intriguing, but if he's not a catcher, he's not as attractive a commodity. There's also the whole down year thing that makes 2011 look like the anomaly, rather than the norm -- it would be awful to waste a draft pick in compensation on a player who isn't going to produce at a rate that justifies it. Other than Napoli, it's all wishes, projects, and part-timers, with the likes of Carlos Pena, James Loney, Carlos Lee, and Lyle Overbay available. Youkilis, even if he hits like he did with the White Sox (.236/.346/.425) is likely an improvement over those options.
The primary issues seem to be whether or not the White Sox decline the option or not, and whether Youkilis would want to return to the Red Sox. Having Bobby Valentine out of town is likely a good start. The fact a starting job is open for him, without anyone knocking on the door to take it, is also a positive. It might turn out that Boston's decision to trade Youkilis so he could play full-time somewhere else, rather than sit on Boston's bench begging for scraps, kept this particular bridge from being set alight, leaving Youkilis open to a return. We'll have to see, but all of those possibilities seem like likelihoods.
The real question then becomes: Do the Red Sox want to re-sign Kevin Youkilis?