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The Strike Zone

Dealing Youkilis makes sense for BoSox

Kevin Youkilis has never played as many as 150 games in a season. (AP)

The Greek God of Walks may soon be on the move. According to CBSSports.com's Danny Knobler, the Red Sox are telling teams that they "definitely intend" to trade first baseman Kevin Youkilis, and while general manager Ben Cherington refuted the report, the handwriting is on the wall. The 33-year-old righty has been a mainstay of Boston's lineup since 2006, but the combination of his increasing lack of availability due to injuries and the emergence of Will Middlebrooks has rendered him expendable, particularly as he's in the final year of a four-year, $41.1 million deal (there is also a $13 million club option for 2013 with a $1 million buyout).

The timing appears to be right. The Red Sox, who have missed the playoffs in each of the past two seasons and sit in last place in the AL East this year with a 26-25 record, have glaring needs that they could address by dealing Youkilis, particularly in their rotation. Youkilis was hitting just .219/.292/.344 with two home runs when he went on the disabled list on April 29 due to a lower back strain, and missed 22 games. He homered in his return on May 22, and is batting .313/.371/.531 in 35 plate appearances since being activated. But while he has heated up, he has forced manager Bobby Valentine to arrange his lineup in an unorthodox fashion that isn't likely to last.

At the heart of the matter is the progress of Middlebrooks. The 23-year-old third baseman hit a combined .285/.328/.506 with 23 homers last year while rising from Low-A to Triple-A, with most of his time spent at Double-A Portland. Baseball America hailed him as the organization's No. 1 prospect and put him 51st on their list of the top 100 prospects overall, while Baseball Prospectus had him third on the Sox and 55th overall. He's considered one of the minors' best defenders at the hot corner, but his above-average raw power is offset by a lack of patience. Last year, he drew only 26 walks in 472 PA, compared to 114 strikeouts, and while he walked seven times in 100 PA at Triple-A Pawtucket while hitting a blistering .333/.380/.677 with nine homers, his 29/4 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 95 PA at the major league level is cause for concern, even given a .316/.343/.579 line with six homers.

With their projected starting outfield of Carl Crawford, Jacoby Ellsbury and Cody Ross all on the disabled list, the Sox flirted with the idea of playing Middlebrooks in leftfield once Youkilis returned, but he's never played a professional game there before, and the learning curve of playing Fenway Park's notorious Green Monster isn't for novices. Youkilis himself has dabbled in left, playing 18 games there in 2006 and two more in 2009, but his increasing fragility has put the kibosh on further experimentation. Instead, the Sox have tried three-time Gold Glove first baseman Adrian Gonzalez in rightfield, where he has started eight games after playing just three there in years past to accommodate David Ortiz playing first during interleague games. Gonzalez's move to right has allowed Middlebrooks to remain at third, with Youkilis at first, his regular position from 2006-2010 before Gonzalez's arrival and the departure of Mike Lowell forced him back across the diamond.

The results have been uneven. While the Sox are 6-2 in Gonzalez's starts in rightfield, he has just eight putouts and one throwing error (he overshot a cutoff man). That count doesn't include non-plays such as one from the seventh inning of Wednesday's win over the Tigers. Miguel Cabrera hit a chip shot near the foul line that that a sprinting, sliding Gonzalez gloved, but the ball popped out and was ruled a double, allowing the tying run to score. It would have been an above-average play for an experienced outfielder, and while one can't fault Gonzalez for not making it, his slide ended just inches from the wall, almost certainly causing the Sox brass to hold their breath over the possibility that he could injure himself out there.

With Crawford and Ellsbury possibly out through June, and Ross not returning until mid-month, Boston's need for bodies in the outfield isn't going away overnight, but Daniel Nava (.277/.424/.477) and Ryan Sweeney (.313/.340/.440) have been productive enough in limited duty that the team should focus on pitching. Their biggest need is the rotation that has a 5.06 ERA (ranking 12th in the AL) and has made a quality start only 45 percent of the time (11th). No Sox starter has an ERA lower than Felix Doubront's 3.86; while Josh Beckett's 4.26 reflects a couple of bad outings interspersed with several good ones — his 70 percent quality start rate is stellar — Daniel Bard's 4.56 and Jon Lester's 4.79 are disappointing, and Clay Buchholz's 7.19 could be mistaken for a new Boeing model. Daisuke Matsuzaka is rehabbing his way back from Tommy John surgery, but his 5.03 ERA and 4.6 walks per nine over the past three seasons suggest he's not the solution. The bullpen, which has been without its two designated closer alternatives in Andrew Bailey (injured and months away) and Mark Melancon (mowing hitters down in Triple-A after ironing out mechanical woes), could use fortification as well.

The problem for Boston is that the most obvious suitors for Youkilis aren't exactly flush with starting pitching. The Phillies, who appear headed for yet another month without Ryan Howard, just sent Roy Halladay to the DL until at least the All-Star break, and they're crossing their fingers that Vance Worley can quickly regain form when he comes off the DL next week. The Dodgers -- with first baseman James Loney stinking up the joint, third baseman Juan Uribe on the DL after similarly struggling, and Matt Kemp back on the DL for an extended stay -- are desperate for a bat, but with Ted Lilly on the DL and Chad Billingsley scuffling, they can't spare a starter, either. The Giants are without Pablo Sandoval due to wrist surgery, but with Tim Lincecum a mess, Matt Cain and Barry Zito carrying undtradeable contracts, and Madison Bumgarner untouchable, that leaves Ryan Vogelsong as the only plausible option. His 2.36 ERA and 89 percent quality start rate are both tops on the club, so that's a longshot, too.

The Diamondbacks could be a fit. At 23-28, they're nine games behind the Dodgers, and even while playing in a hitter-friendly environment, their offense is eking out a subpar 4.08 runs per game. Third baseman Ryan Roberts has been dreadful (.226/.288/.329), and in Trevor Bauer, Tyler Skaggs and Patrick Corbin, they have a trio of youngsters — the first two of them blue-chip prospects — who could offset a trade of Joe Saunders. The 31-year-old lefty doesn't miss many bats, but his 5.9 strikeouts per nine is a major improvement over last year's 4.6, and his walk, home run and groundball rates have improved as well. He's making $6 million this year, while Youkilis is making $12 million; Boston could eat the difference in salary and potentially gain another warm body in return.

The Red Sox shouldn't expect too much more no matter their trade partner. Though Youkilis is a career .288/.389/.490 hitter (.272/.378/.468 away from Fenway), he averaged just 119 games per year from 2009-2011, and will need his manager(s) to pick his spots to remain productive. At this time of year, though, the swap meet isn't about perfect fits, and the Sox brass needs to improve the team however it can.

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