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Solving The Middlebrooks-Youkilis Dilemma

Will Middlebrooks is making Kevin Youkilis easy to forget. The 23-year-old top prospect has taken the world by storm as Youkilis’s injury replacement. Even in taking an 0-for-4 in Wednesday’s loss to the Royals, Middlebrooks owns a .520 wOBA on the back of four doubles and three home runs in six games. It has been an incredibly exciting debut for Boston and fans of young players in general, one that of course raises the question: what happens when Kevin Youkilis returns?

Ben Cherington has already shot down one popular solution: moving Middlebrooks to the outfield. With Carl Crawford out much longer than expected, there will be a bit of shallowness to the Red Sox outfield even upon Jacoby Ellsbury‘s return. Playing Middlebrooks in a corner would allow the Sox to platoon Cody Ross and Ryan Sweeney in the other, which was the likely plan for the duo heading into the season. If Middlebrooks’s bat is real at all, it’s quite likely an improvement on running Darnell McDonald or Marlon Byrd (and his -1 wRC+) out there on daily basis. Middlebrooks is projected for a .251/.286/.420 line (.309 wOBA) by ZiPS, and his fast start between Triple-A and MLB could be reason to believe he can do even better. Byrd and McDonald are each projected for .306 wOBAs, but McDonald hasn’t played that well since 2010 and Byrd, again, has a -1 wRC+ this season.

Middlebrooks should be able to outhit both of them. He would, however, need time to learn the position — he’s never played it professionally — a potential detriment to his development as a hitter. Considering this and the fact that McDonald and Byrd would likely be superior defenders, the gain seems minimal. The Red Sox apparently agree, and that leaves us back at square one: who plays third base upon Middlebrooks’s return?

The option of keeping both on the roster is unrealistic. At just 23 and in the midst of his fifth professional season (fourth full), Middlebrooks needs consistent at-bats regardless of the level he is assigned. Similarly, keeping Youkilis and his $12 million contract on the roster as a bench bat isn’t a plausible solution either, both due to the money and that Youkilis, despite his early season slump, is probably still a better hitter than Middlebrooks. Even in last year’s down campaign, Youkilis managed a 126 wRC+ and hasn’t been worse than 124 since 2006. Middlebrooks could be a good hitter already this season, but asking him to put up a 125 wRC+ as a 23-year-old rookie with just 100 PAs at Triple-A is a tall order. Just seven third basemen have hit that well at 23 or younger since 2000: Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera, Troy Glaus, Pablo Sandoval, David Wright, Evan Longoria and Eric Chavez.

Still, if the Red Sox could get average to above-average third base production out of Middlebrooks, they’d be well served to shop Youkilis, as his contract should fetch value. Beyond the $12 million this season, the Red Sox also hold an extremely attractive $13 million club option with just a $1 million buyout. With a low-risk shot at holding Youkilis for two years, Boston could conceivably bring in pieces for both the present and future. Specifically, the Sox could use another corner outfielder or any sort of useful pitching arm — most likely in the bullpen unless they are bent on replacing Clay Buchholz, Felix Doubront or Dan Bard (or decide to move one of them to the pen).

Of potential playoff contenders in need of a corner infielder, Cleveland, Milwaukee, the Dodgers and the White Sox immediately come to mind, and perhaps Philadelphia depending on Ryan Howard‘s progression or willingness to move Placido Polanco to second base. More suitors could easily crop up in the next few weeks as well.

Given the drama already forming between Bobby Valentine and Kevin Youkilis, a trade may have been inevitable. However, the presence of Middlebrooks as a legitimate option at third base gives the Red Sox an excellent opportunity to turn this negative into a positive and fill gaps at areas of greater need. Boston should consider themselves lucky — the injury to Youkilis, opening the door for Middlebrooks, may lead to an even better Red Sox team in 2012 and beyond.