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Thanks to Youkilis

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  July 23, 2009 07:11 AM

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Kevin Youkilis's versatility helped the Red Sox acquire Adam LaRoche (Reuters)

Today, especially, give thanks for Kevin Youkilis. Regardless of what you think about the Adam LaRoche acquisition, the Red Sox now appear to be a better team on paper. The new (and improved?) Sox will take the field for the first time tomorrow night against the Baltimore Orioles in a much-needed return to Fenway Park.

Let’s be clear on this: The only reason the Sox were able to even make this move is because they have arguably the most versatile and valuable corner infielder in the game.

Roughly four hours before last night’s 3-1 loss to the Texas Rangers -- that’s five in a row, if you’re counting -- Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein conducted a conference call to address the deal that brought LaRoche to Boston for minor leaguers Argenis Diaz and Hunter Strickland. Epstein kept referring to the "reasonable acquisition cost" of a lefthanded-hitter with power, which was an extremely tactful way of saying that LaRoche was all but picked up for nothing from Pittsburgh, baseball’s answer to Building 19. (Good stuff cheap.) As owner John Henry noted on Twitter last night: "[The] trading deadline hasn’t passed but don’t expect blockbuster(s); [we] like this club; [we] love the prospects it might take to do a blockbuster."

Capisce? The Sox had no interest in giving up anyone of consequence and they still don’t. If you think there’s a bigger gift than this coming before July 31, we’d advise you to don your jammies, put out a plate of milk and cookies, then wait for Señor Claus.

All of this brings us back to Youkilis, who has been the Red Sox’ answer to most every problem over the last two seasons. Entering this season, the two most potent lefthanded bats in Boston belonged to designated hitter David Ortiz and right fielder J.D. Drew. Combined, while counting for $27 million against the Red Sox payroll, they are now batting .230 with 161 strikeouts in 169 games. Overall this season, the lefthanded bats in the Boston lineup (non-pitchers, including switch hitters) are batting .242, a number skewed by the presence of Jacoby Ellsbury, whose .287 average qualifies as the only number above .233 among everyday players in that group.

To wit: Minus Ellsbury, who is slugging .384, the Red Sox have a .226 average from a cast of lefthanded hitters that has included: Jonathan Van Every (4 for 11, .364, out for the year), Mark Kotsay (19 for 74, .257), Drew (.233), Ortiz (.228), Jason Varitek (.219 from the left side), George Kottaras (.213), Jed Lowrie (.095 from the left side) and Chris Carter (0 for 5, .000).

As a group, the Red Sox lefthanded hitters have been positively wretched this season, which is why the Sox were so focused almost exclusively on a lefthanded bat.

So, how does this relate to Youkilis? Given the issues on the left side of the infield, third base and shortstop were about the only two places the Sox could look for an upgrade. Finding a potent lefthanded hitter at either position is a virtual impossibility, particularly when factoring in the Red Sox’ desire to minimize the cost in terms of prospects. (Oh, but if only they had ponied up for Mark Teixeira last winter.) Adding in the dearth of overall power hitters at shortstop -- let alone lefthanded-hitting ones -- the Sox really were forced to seek an upgrade at one position, third base, where Mike Lowell’s ongoing health issues have created an opening.

Here’s the problem: There aren’t many lefthanded-hitting third basemen available. Since the start of last season, among players with at least 60 games at third base, only two (Chipper Jones and Alex Rodriguez) have a higher OPS than Youkilis (.922) at the position. Both are signed to long-term contracts that make them either unavailable or undesirable. (By the way, Ortiz is signed through next year for $13 million per and Drew is signed through 2011 at $14 million per, making each untradable given his current level of play.) The only third basemen on that list are people like Greg Dobbs (Philadelphia), Mark Teahen (Kansas City) and Carlos Guillen (Detroit).

So, if Youkilis couldn’t play third base as effectively as he does -- and seamlessly make the transition from one corner to the other -- the Red Sox might very well have been relegated to someone like Dobbs or Teahen, the latter of whom they expressed interest in. Youkilis saved their bacon by opening up an entirely new market of players that included lefthanded-hitting first basemen, which allowed them to acquire someone like LaRoche at that oh-so-important "reasonable acquisition cost."

For what it’s worth, other than Youkilis, there is not a man in baseball who has played 60 games at first base and 60 games at third base since the start of the 2008 season. Among third baseman, as mentioned, only Jones and Rodriguez have a higher OPS than Youkilis during that span. Among first basemen, Youkilis has the highest OPS in the American League (.986) and trails only the freakish Albert Pujols (1.113) in the majors.

Think about that for a minute. If the Sox put Youkilis at third, he’s one of the most productive players in baseball. If they put him at first, he’s one of the most productive players in baseball. And we haven’t even factored in Youkilis’s defensive skills or ability to move around the lineup, the latter of which proved similarly invaluable last season after the Sox cut bait with Manny Ramirez and asked Youkilis to be their cleanup hitter.

Oh, by the way, Epstein signed Youkilis to a four-year, $41.125 contract last offseason that translates into an average of basically $10.25 million per year. Compare that to the average annual salaries of people like Jones ($14 million through 2012), Rodriguez ($27.5 million through eternity) and Pujols ($16 million through 2011). Now that’s a "reasonable acquisition cost."

In the end, maybe you don’t like the LaRoche pickup. Maybe you wanted something more, which is particularly understandable given the Red Sox' long-term need for a power hitter from the left side because of the demise of Ortiz, the disappointment of Drew, and the delay of Lars Anderson. But when you consider the Red Sox’ approach of regarding their best prospects as the real world treats oil, the Red Sox weren’t going to give up much here. They still ended up getting an extremely serviceable player for an American League East race that suddenly looks as if it will be a fight to the finish.

For that, they have Kevin Youkilis to thank.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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