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Team executed a nice pick at third

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / July 16, 2012
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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Maybe someday Bobby Valentine will have to say about Will Middlebrooks, “He just doesn’t seem physically and emotionally into the game as he has been for some reason.” But that likely will be way in the future. And I’ll bet Middlebrooks doesn’t take it as personally as Kevin Youkilis did after Valentine’s April interview with Channel 7.

Youkilis, who returns to Boston Monday with the White Sox, never seemed to get over Valentine’s comment about him and held it against the Red Sox manager, who said as much before Sunday’s 7-3 win over the Rays and may have restarted the Youk Wars.

Youkilis will hear the “Youk” chants, be lauded by ex-teammates (even though some of them accused him of being the snitch during their September collapse of last season), and all that jazz, but the fact is, the Red Sox made the right choice when they traded Youkilis to Chicago and committed to Middlebrooks for good.

Middlebrooks may have a ways to go before he matches some of Youkilis’s statistics, but regardless of the tick in adrenaline Youkilis has received in Chicago for wanting to prove the Red Sox wrong, or for the fresh start he received, Middlebrooks’s upside is undeniable.

Middlebrooks stroked three more hits Sunday, including a two-run, bases-loaded single in the fifth inning that opened up Boston’s lead. He’s hitting .301 with 11 homers and 41 RBIs in 183 at-bats with an .881 OPS.

“I’m just feeling comfortable again,” said Middlebrooks, who is back after missing several games with a hamstring injury. “The first game was tough, but I started getting good at-bats the last two days and I feel I just needed to make some adjustments given the way they were pitching me.”

Tampa Bay stopped throwing the rookie fastballs and made him prove he can hit the offspeed stuff, which is usually the last thing to come after an injury. Middlebrooks got hits Sunday on a curveball and a changeup.

“Will took 10 days off and six of them without any batting practice,” Valentine said. “He got the hits on the curve and change and it just looks like he’s feeling good again.”

It’s been debated whether Valentine erred in taking back his remarks about Youkilis after that interview. Some people want him to be himself and never be muted, but it seemed that incident caused him to pull back and withhold things he’d like to say.

It was a low point for the Red Sox because it pitted the player against the manager. Then Dustin Pedroia publicly ripped Valentine and general manager Ben Cherington didn’t back him. Nor did ownership.

The whole incident brought to light how thin-skinned players have gotten. Youkilis indeed was hardly the player he’d been at the start of the season, and he was beaten out for his job by Middlebrooks.

The bottom line is the White Sox are happy with the trade. The Red Sox are happy with Middlebrooks and happy to have Youkilis out of the picture for a few reasons — including the fact that it enabled Adrian Gonzalez to go back to first base after 18 games in right field in the attempt to spread out playing time.

The Red Sox never were going to pick up the $13 million option on Youkilis’s contract, nor does it appear that the White Sox will either. But White Sox GM Ken Williams made a good deal, and his scouts did a good job recognizing that Youkilis wasn’t done as a player and that all he needed was a change of scenery and good health to start being what he’s always been.

If Valentine started up the Youk issue all over again Sunday, so be it. He actually doesn’t mind stirring the pot.

When asked about any friction that may have existed, Valentine said, “I think that’s a joke. I wasn’t here last year. There was no friction in spring training. So I think that’s a joke. But I’ll take all that. I think the comment that I made early, he made a big issue out of and I don’t think he ever wanted to get over it.”

Of his relationship with Youkilis after the Channel 7 comment, Valentine said, “I have no idea. It’s whatever he wanted it to be. Like I said, we didn’t have any strained relationship in spring training and I wasn’t around last year.”

In mentioning “last year,” Valentine apparently was referring to the notion that some players on the team believe Youkilis could have been the source of the story regarding drinking and eating chicken in the clubhouse during games.

“Yeah, I was aware of that,” Valentine said. “I was a newcomer. I inherited that situation, didn’t cause it.”

Asked about Valentine’s latest comments before the White Sox’ game against the Royals Sunday, Youkilis told reporters in Kansas City, Mo., “I’ve got nothing about any of that stuff. I’m over all the Boston thing of this year.”

Youkilis hit .233 with a .692 OPS in 42 games for the Red Sox this season. Since the trade, he has hit .295 with an .873 OPS for the White Sox. Over 16 games, he has three homers and 15 RBIs. Overall, he’s hitting .251 with seven homers and 29 RBIs in 207 at-bats. His overall numbers don’t compare with the rookie’s.

“I haven’t seen him play, but he’s gotten a lot of hits,” Valentine said of Youkilis. “He’s played a lot of games. Seems like he’s healthier. I’m not surprised. Matter of fact, [hitting coach Dave Magadan] said no doubt that if he went somewhere else he would play better.”

The tough part from a Red Sox public relations point of view is that they not only didn’t get a great return on the deal, but Middlebrooks got hurt, reinjuring his hamstring at the time when Youkilis was his hottest with the White Sox.

People kept wondering when Middlebrooks would return. When he did so after the break, Middlebrooks started up where he left off, hitting a two-run homer against David Price Saturday night and getting those three hits against James Shields, both very good major league pitchers.

So maybe there’ll be fireworks with the White Sox in town, but it’s a deal that really did work out for both teams.

The trade was really a player development success story for the Red Sox.

It’s not often you can have a player like Youkilis for eight seasons and then be able to deal him away because you have another third baseman in your organization ready to take his place.

And this week, we’ll get to see what Red Sox fans lost (the 33-year-old Youkilis) and what Red Sox fans have gained (a 23-year-old Middlebrooks).

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.

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