|Will Middlebrooks’s strong play raises questions about his fate when Kevin Youkilis returns. (Bill Greene/Globe Staff)|
Hot corner heating up
Should Youkilis get his job back?
Sorry, but explain to fans the following recent statement by Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington:
“If [Kevin Youkilis] returns in a week and is ready to go, he plays third base. He’s been here. It’s great that Will [Middlebrooks] has come up and done a good job and we like him a lot and he’s a big part of our future. But Youk’s on the DL and he didn’t lose his job because he got hurt.’’
Middlebrooks was promoted because of need.
There are projections when Middlebrooks, shortstop Jose Iglesias, and catcher Ryan Lavarnway should come up, and Middlebrooks was probably third on this depth chart. But an injury to Youkilis, coupled by Middlebrooks’s hot start in Pawtucket (.333, nine homers in April), made him the obvious choice when Youkilis went down with a back strain.
Youkilis is making steady progress and might play during the Red Sox’ eight-game road trip, which begins Wednesday in Tampa Bay.
Youkilis took ground balls Monday, the latest step in his recovery. He apparently feels really good. The Red Sox should welcome Youkilis back, but at the expense of Middlebrooks, who has added some energy to the team and the offense?
This is where Red Sox Nation and Cherington seem to part company.
Bobby Valentine loves everything he’s seen from Middlebrooks, but it is difficult to say anything contrary to his GM.
When asked what happens when Youkilis returns, Valentine said, “That’s a little premature. Those things usually play themselves out. No need to make a decision until you have to. It’s too early to make any decision like that. Brooksie has played very well and given us everything we could have asked for and more. He’s done a great job in all aspects of the game.’’
There’s no finality on the topic in Valentine’s mind. If he’s overruled, he’s overruled.
Valentine recently said in passing at a press conference there had been some discussion in the organization about Middlebrooks getting some reps in the outfield. A couple of days later Valentine said that was not in the plans.
Nobody likes to be moved out of a position by a younger guy.
The Red Sox had that happen when John Valentin was ousted at shortstop by Nomar Garciaparra. Valentin was moved to second base. It happens a lot in the majors.
If Youkilis returns strong and looks like the hitter he’s been throughout his career, then it’s a different scenario. Maybe Youkilis becomes the hitter you can’t live without because of his on-base capability in the middle of the order.
Middlebrooks, who went 1 for 4 in the Red Sox’ 6-1 victory over the Mariners Monday night at Fenway, is hitting .304 with four homers and 13 RBIs. Those are numbers you can’t sit on the bench. The Drew Bledsoe-Tom Brady analogy is somewhat pertinent in this case. Bill Belichick had just about reached the end of the line with Bledsoe and when Brady took over and performed so well, it was an easy decision.
It would seem if Middlebrooks continues to perform, then it’s an easy decision for Valentine, who has always chosen the younger player in these situations. Of course, if the decision is Cherington’s, we know the outcome.
There are reasons Cherington needs to feel the way he does.
Youkilis is in the final season of his contract, though there is a $13 million option for next season. If Middlebrooks is the real deal and Youkilis is healthy and productive again, Youkilis could be traded.
Teams such as the White Sox and Phillies could use a steady third baseman. The White Sox have pitching, including hard-throwing lefthander Matt Thornton or righthander Gavin Floyd. The Reds could also be a player for Youkilis, who hails from Cincinnati.
For the Red Sox to move Youkilis, he would have to show a few weeks of good health. If he’s not playing regularly, that might be hard to accomplish.
And Middlebrooks needs to keep up his play.
The oddity is Youkilis has been a big help to Middlebrooks.
“He’s been awesome,’’ Middlebrooks said. “He’s been helping me day in and day out.’’
When asked about Youkilis regaining his job, Middlebrooks said, “I don’t deal with it, to be honest. I try not to think about it. Like I said, I take it day by day and I’m here to have fun. I’m here to win today. Whatever happens, happens. I understand it’s a business, at the same time, Youkilis has contributed so much to this team and this organization, I can’t deny it. I understand how it works.
“I mean, everyone wants to be here and play here every day. That’s why I’m here and that’s what I’m trying to do. We’ll see how it works out.’’
If you’re Valentine, however, and Middlebrooks is hot and hitting for power, it’s awfully hard to take out a lineup card and write down Youkilis’s name instead of Middlebrooks.
Like Valentine said, maybe it will resolve itself. How? If the league learns how to pitch to Middlebrooks. But if that doesn’t happen, how do you disrupt something that is working?