Kevin Youkilis has returned to Boston, and Bobby Valentine has opted to move Youkilis to first base and Adrian Gonzalez to right field to accommodate Will Middlebrooks at third base. The Red Sox are low on healthy outfielders at the moment, so perhaps the lineup will stick, but eventually, some combination of Jacoby Ellsbury, Carl Crawford Cody Ross, and Ryan Kalish will return to provide enough offense to move Gonzalez, given his limitations in the outfield. When he returns to first base, they will have three corner infielders and only two positions where they can play them.
The Red Sox would have several options, but few would make practical sense. Gonzalez is signed through 2018, so he will remain in the lineup. David Ortiz has a one-year contract, but he leads the team with a 156 wRC+ in a minimum of 100 plate appearances. He is the best hitter they have, and with limited defensive abilities, he will remain at DH.
The choice will likely be between Youkilis, who could be traded, and Middlebrooks, who could be sent down to the minors. There are many factors in the decision, but let us pretend that the one that matters is winning in 2012. Let us also pretend that Middlebrooks will be what he has shown so far—please ignore that .380 BABIP—and that Youkilis will be what he used to be—please ignore those health concerns.
In 84 plate appearances, Middlebrooks has been similarly effective to Youkilis in his career. His .381 wOBA is just shy of Youkilis’ .382 career wOBA mark. However, the two arrived at those numbers by very different means. Youkilis has been carried by his exceptional .389 on-base percentage, a result of solid walk and strikeout rates of 12.5 percent and 18.3 percent respectively. In contrast, Middlebrooks strikes out a ton, 31.0 percent of the time, and rarely walks, only 3.6 percent of the time. Still, at just 23 years old, he holds a .272 ISO, a mark better than Youkilis’ from his age 29-31 peak of near .250 and much better than Youkilis across his career at .202.
Should the Red Sox have a preference between them? Youkilis derives his value from frequently reaching base, and Middlebrooks derives his value from his power. Their profiles are different but have resulted in similar levels of offensive production.
The answer is yes, the Red Sox should have a preference, and it has nothing to do with their run expectancy. It is all about the market.
Annual salary at age 33:
|Name||BB%||K%||OBP||ISO||wOBA||AAV at 33 (millions)|
Compared to similar players at his age of 33, Youkilis is fairly compensated. He would likely be considered a first baseman or DH rather than a third baseman in a trade scenario, so Hafner and Lee make the most sense as comparables. Hafner is two years older than Youkilis and Hafner four, Their average annual contract values at 33 were $11.5 and $13.3 million, similar to Youkilis’ $12 million. The list spans a decade, so inflation undersells some contracts, while differences in positions and defensive capabilities are also factors, but Youkilis’ 2012 salary is the same as the average of the group at his age.
If Youkilis can demonstrate that he is healthy, he will be a valuable trade piece. His contract expires at the end of this season, and with a team option of $13 million for 2013 and a small $1 million team buyout, he offers market-rate production without a long-term commitment.
Middlebrooks could make Youkilis expendable with some improvements in his plate discipline and contact rates. Yuniesky Betancourt and Vladimir Guerrero were the only batters with a lower walk rate last season than Middlebrooks in 2012, but Betancourt and Guerrero compensated by making contact with balls outside of the strike zone more than 70.0 percent of the time. Middlebrooks has made contact on only 60.0 percednt of balls out of the zone, and yet he has swung at 29.8 pdercent of them.
Middlebrooks struggles to make contact inside the strike zone, as well. His low 81.9 percent contact rate for strikes coupled with his propensity to swing and miss at balls adds up to a 72.2 percent contact rate, which would have been in the bottom-10 of qualified hitters in 2011.
The contact issues are a concern, but there is cause for optimism, as well. Middlebrooks had shown steady improvements at the plate in the minors, culminating in a 7.0 percent walk rate and 18.0 percent strikeout rate in Triple-A this year. Those 100 plate appearances are not a big enough sample to draw a conclusion, but neither are the 84 so far in the majors. If he can settle into numbers somewhere between the two, he could not only stick in the majors, he could excel.
Over the past 10 years:
|Wily Mo Pena||6.1%||30.0%||.304||.195||.322|
With reasonable improvements in his walk and strikeout rates, Middlebrooks would look similar to players from the past 10 seasons including Carlos Gonzalez, Soriano, and Cruz, even when his homers per fly ball and BABIP numbers return to earth.
The many injuries to the Red Sox outfielders could be a blessing in disguise. For a while, Middlebrooks will have a chance to demonstrate improved discipline and contact skills in the face of likely batted-ball regression while Youkilis will have a chance to demonstrate that he is healthy. If everything breaks right for them, the Red Sox could find themselves well positioned for the trade deadline. With a cost-controlled Middlebrooks playing a quality third base, the team could trade Youkilis and try to address its other needs.