It happened so quickly. One moment, Kevin Youkilis was sprinting to third. In the next, the Fenway faithful were demanding a curtain call, and in the next, he was a member of the White Sox. Three months ago, this scenario would have been hard to predict, let alone imagine. It has become reality thanks to the play of Will Middlebrooks, who will immediately replace Youkilis at the hot corner for the Red Sox. For weeks, Boston has done their best to try to keep both Youkilis and Middlebrooks in the lineup together, but with the team’s outfield stabilizing that became tougher to do over the past week, and a solution had to be found. No one is going to mistake the deal the team struck — eating most of Youkilis’ salary and receiving fading prospect Zach Stewart along with utility man Brent Lillibridge — as a home run, but the return wasn’t really the point. Boston already has a great team on the field (don’t look now, but Boston has the fourth-best run differential in the Majors), and this trade allows the roster to fit more naturally, with the potential to get a good pitcher being a fringe benefit.
When Youkilis landed on the disabled list at the start of May with lower-back pain, Middlebrooks stepped into the fray. While he had hit well in the Minors, no one expected him to come in and compile a 146 wRC+ in May. Sure, people knew about Middlebrooks — Marc Hulet ranked him second on Boston’s top 15 prospect list this spring — but even with his great 2011 season, the third baseman entered 2012 with a career line of .271/.329/.443 in 1,666 PA. To suddenly be hitting .329/.371/.620 this season, with the majority of that line coming in the Majors, has been otherworldly.
And there may be some cause for concern there. While Middlebrooks has a history of posting high BABIP’s, his LD/GB/FB numbers are essentially league average, while his BABIP is decidedly higher. At this point, Middlebrooks’ .380 BABIP is 59 points higher than his .321 xBABIP. The 23-year old has always been a bit of a hacker as well, and while his plate discipline has improved this month, his 0.22 BB/K puts him in the bottom 30 out of anyone with at least 150 plate appearances. In addition, about one out of every five fly balls he hits is sailing over the fence — his 23.7% HR/FB places him 13th in baseball, a hair behind Trevor Plouffe. But while these underlying factors may point to some regression on the horizon, his performance so far cannot be denied.
Yesterday, Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington plainly stated, “Middlebrooks needs to be in the lineup, that’s pretty clear.” Manager Bobby Valentine has seen and said the same, and before this weekend, he had gone to the trouble of reworking the lineup to keep Middlebrooks in it. On 16 occasions, Valentine moved the team’s $154 million man, Adrian Gonzalez, out to right field in order to play both Middlebrooks and Youkilis simultaneously after Youkilis returned from the DL. But that couldn’t continue forever. For one thing, Gonzalez is no right fielder. You don’t need advanced stats to tell you that that experiment wasn’t going to be viable long-term. Second, the team’s outfield is starting to take shape.
At some point, Carl Crawford and Jacoby Ellsbury will return to the Red Sox lineup. In their absence, eight other players have started at least five games in Boston’s outfield, and only now — following injuries to Scott Podsednik and Ryan Sweeney, the return of Ryan Kalish, Darnell McDonald and Cody Ross and the release of Marlon Byrd — is the outfield crystallizing. For just the first time all season, this past week saw manager Bobby Valentine play the same outfield combo — Daniel Nava in left, Kalish in center and Ross in right — for four consecutive games. McDonald may spell Kalish against lefties, and Sweeney figures to work into the lineup when he returns, but for now, this seems like the Boston outfield. And with good reason. Nava has an even bigger BABIP-xBABIP gulf than does Middlebrooks, but his plate discipline has improved a great deal since 2010, and the early returns on his defense are encouraging as well. Ross has been likewise tearing the cover off the ball — he is third on the team in homers despite being seventh in plate appearances. And while Kalish hasn’t shown good results quite yet, the potential is there. All of which means that the time for shoehorning Gonzalez into the outfield had come to an end. Something had to give, and it did with Youkilis’ trade.
To start with, it would be unfair to judge Boston’s return through the prism of Youkilis being locked up for next season. While he does have a $13 million club option for 2013, the fact that the Red Sox picked up the lion’s share of the money in the deal shows that this is a one-year rental for Chicago. As such, the return has to be viewed as one commensurate with a one-year rental. And a one-year rental of a player with injury concerns and a .307 wOBA isn’t going to fetch much. Both Lillibridge and Stewart can be described as somewhere between project and flier.
Lillibridge would represent the latter. The 28-year old had a breakout 2011 campaign, but he has changed his approach this year, and it has not been pretty. He has gone from a 0.64 GB/FB to a 1.82 mark this season, and his ISO and HR/FB have plummeted as a result. Always a free swinger, he has been challenged in the zone more this season — he has started 0-1 68.6% of the time, which is the 15th-highest percentage among those with at least 70 plate appearances. He has exactly 70 PA on the season, and he doesn’t figure to play much more frequently with the Red Sox, unless more injuries occur. But he can contribute all over the diamond, as he has started games this season at first base, third base, left field and center field, and he started at second and in right last season as well. Until he improves his plate discipline, he won’t have much of a place in Boston, but given his past success — albeit brief — he could be an interesting player.
Stewart though is the real key, and represents the “project” portion of the deal. While his results at the Major League level have not been pretty, either in Toronto or Chicago, he is a former top prospect. The Sox have had luck in rebuilding Franklin Morales’ career, and while Stewart doesn’t have Morales’ velocity, he does have excellent control. And there are rays of hope in his poor start to the season as well — his xFIP- is 104. Obviously, he won’t be of much service if he keeps coughing up gopher balls at his current rate, but should that correct itself, the Sox may have a useful arm on their hands.
One of the great what-if’s to this Red Sox season will undoubtedly be, “what if Youkilis doesn’t need to go on the DL?” If he doesn’t, perhaps Middlebrooks doesn’t reach the Majors until later in the season — maybe not even until September — and Youkilis stays with the team through the end of the season. But he did need the time on the DL, and in the interim, Middlebrooks made himself an indispensable member of the team. The Red Sox didn’t exactly get a grade-A return for him, but then they didn’t need one. Boston already has its replacement for Youkilis in house, and even though Middlebrooks is unlikely to sustain his early pace, he figures to be a solid player for the Sox for the foreseeable future, and one who needs to be on the field in order to continue to develop. Combine his play with better play from the team’s outfield, and there really was just no way to get Youkilis consistent at-bats. While dealing Youkilis may be a blow for the team emotionally, it gives the roster a much cleaner alignment. If the team is able to get better results from Lillibridge and Stewart that will be icing on the cake.