Kevin Youkilis is changing his Sox. After weeks of speculation and a weekend that featured reporters offering round-the-clock updates on his status, the Red Sox have traded the 33-year-old three-time All-Star and about $5.5 million in cash to the White Sox for 25-year-old righty reliever Zach Stewart and 28-year-old utilityman Brent Lillibridge. The move solves a pair of problems for Boston, opening up playing time for hot-hitting rookie Will Middlebrooks while removing the distraction created by a disgruntled veteran seemingly at odds with his manager in a media-saturated environment. Not to be overlooked is the impact on the White Sox, who have received such dismal production from their third basemen that even in less than mint condition, Youkilis may be an upgrade, and a player who benefits with a change of scenery.
Chicago currently sits at 38-34 (the same record as the Red Sox, incidentally), clinging to a half-game lead atop the AL Central. Its offense is fifth in the league in scoring, but its production at third base has been dismal: .167/.243/.224. The White Sox began the season with Brent Morel as the starter, but the 25-year-old was on a short leash after a disappointing rookie season last year in which he hit just .245/.286/.366. That performance looks like the heyday of Robin Ventura next to Morel's .177/.225/.195 showing this year, one that has included just two extra base hits in his 125 plate appearances. He lost his job in mid-May when the White Sox picked up Orlando Hudson on waivers, but the O-Dog's .167/.247/.286 "hitting" and his defense at a position where he hadn't played since the minor leagues in 2001 have both fallen short. The acquisition of Youkilis gives Chicago more than a month to decide whether its hot corner problem has been solved; if need be, it can make another upgrade before the July 31 trade deadline.
Not doing so would mean Youkilis has turned around what has been a disappointing season. A career .286/.388/.487 hitter, he's hitting just .225/.311/.359 in 2012, numbers that have seen little improvement since his late May return from a lower back strain. Injuries have increasingly kept him out of the lineup in recent years while sapping his productivity. He averaged just 119 games from 2009-2011, finishing the 2010 season on the disabled list with a thumb injury and ending last season on the bench due to bursitis in his left hip -- woes that factored into the Red Sox missing the playoffs both times. He had already missed more than five weeks of last season due to a lower back strain and a sports hernia; not surprisingly, he finished with his lowest batting average (.258) and on-base percentage (.373) since his 2004 rookie season, numbers that look robust compared to his current production. At the very least, he won't lose the advantage of playing in a hitter-friendly stadium, since U.S. Cellular, like Fenway Park, favors offense.
Even before Youkilis served his 23-day stint on the disabled list, his heir apparent made his presence felt. Middlebrooks debuted on May 2 and went 8-for-21 with three homers in his first four games, including two on May 7. He has yet to cool off, hitting .331/.368/.592 with nine home runs in 152 plate appearances. While he won't maintain that level of production, he's clearly the Red Sox third baseman of the future. Here's what I wrote about him on June 1:
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 its 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.
Once Youkilis returned to action, manager Bobby Valentine tried to find a way to keep both his old and new third basemen in the lineup by shifting Youkilis to first base and moving Adrian Gonzalez to right field in order to keep Middlebrooks at third. That experiment generated mixed reviews at best, and wasn't helped by Youkilis' continued struggles, but removing him from the lineup has created controversy for both manager and player, with the suggestion of a communication gap surfacing more than once.
For the Red Sox, who still sit in fourth place in the AL East, five games out of first, the removal of the daily distraction may help more than the two players they're getting, the latter of which is a reflection of Youkilis' diminished value even given the amount of money they included in the deal. Once a decent pitching prospect, Stewart has been torched for a 6.00 ERA while allowing 10 homers in 30 innings this year, and his career 5.92 ERA in 97 1/3 innings suggests he's unlikely to give the scuffling Boston rotation a lift. Lillibridge, a 28-year-old righty who has played every position but pitcher and catcher in his big league career, is hitting a dismal .175/.232/.190 after enjoying a breakout last year (.258/.340/.505 with 13 homers in 216 plate appearances). He was very effective against lefties in 2010 and 2011, hitting a combined .291/.345/.591 in 127 plate appearances, but he's just 2-for-25 with one walk against southpaws this year. Youkilis was a vital part of four playoff teams and two world champions during his time in Boston (though he was limited to a cameo in the 2004 World Series). In his final plate appearance for the Red Sox, he bashed an RBI triple to right-centerfield against the Braves on Sunday, then yielded to pinch-runner Nick Punto as he received not only a standing ovation but a video tribute and a curtain call from the Fenway faithful. The White Sox now hope he can provide the same kind of memorable moments to aid their playoff bid.