He is perhaps most well-known for his insane ability to get on base, but Kevin Youkilis has been an extremely productive player for the Red Sox for the past six years in most facets of the game. Of course, it was his ability to get on base that first attracted him to many executives across the league (including Billy Beane, which was much-publicized in Moneyball), and earned him the nickname “The Greek God of Walks.” Since 2006, his first full season in the bigs, the league-average walk rate was always somewhere in the 8%-range. Youk, on the other hand, has excelled with a career rate of 12.6%, and has never had a season under 10%. However, the long-time Red Sox is getting up in age, next year will be his age-33 season, and his future is an interesting thing to look at for the front office.
Back in the winter of 2009, after Youkilis had completed a breakout 5.9 fWAR season, the Red Sox signed him to a four year contract extension that included a team option for a fifth season. With 2012 being the fourth year of his contract, he’s guaranteed to be with the Sox for at least one more year. The question moving forward is: What is the best way to put the aging third baseman in the best position to succeed? To me, there are two good options and one that’s less then advantageous.
The first option is to do nothing. If you bring back David Ortiz to continue DHing, there’s nowhere to move Youkilis as long as both Ortiz and Adrian Gonzalez are healthy. While they’ll still get good production from DH and first base, Youkilis’s performance noticeably took a hit this year when forced to move back to third base full-time for the first time since 2005. This season, you could tell the physical strains of third base took a toll on his aging body. After playing in 135 games during his first four seasons as a full-time player, he played in just 120 games in 2011. He also saw his strikeout rate rise to 19.3%, 1.2% higher than his career average and a 3.9% jump from 2010. His power also fell off, with his .202 ISO basically matching his career average, but the average was brought down by the beginning of his career. From 2008-2010, he’d posted .257, .242, and .257 ISOs, respectively. We also saw his wOBA and wRC+ fall below his career average, and well below the marks he set in the 2007-2009 seasons.
The point that I am trying make with all of these declining stats is that he may be too old to play third base at this stage of his career. UZR may not be the best measure to look at for a single season, but if you compare his 2011 season to his 2005 (last full season at the position), he went from a +7.0 UZR to a -2.3, showing a possible lack of range that he used to possess.
The other option I would seriously consider is to not re-signing David Ortiz. I have heard that Ortiz is looking for something in the 2 year, $20 million range. And that number could even be increased with the way this year’s market has been going. ($4.5 million guaranteed for Juan Rivera? Really LA?) Ortiz had a great year last year, but I have my doubts that he will be able to repeat those results for two straight years; especially considering he’ll be 36 and 37 in those years. For most players, especially those with his body type, these are typically the years decline really starts to kick in. One thing about Ortiz’s season last year was that he put up a career-low K-rate of 13.4%, and I just do not see him keeping that up. In fact, the two years before last, he put up K-rates of 23.9% and 21.4% respectively, so I’d expect him to at least regress back towards his career average of 18.4%. He also owned a .321 BABIP, which isn’t ridiculously high, but is significant enough that regression back towards .300 will have at least some effect on his final production. Now, don’t get me wrong. Ortiz can still be a productive player. However, if the Sox don’t choose to resign him, they can have Youkilis slide over to the DH role. This should help him stay healthy and fresh through the whole 162 game grind, fill in once and a while at first and third, and also free up some money to possibly sign one of the right fielders on the market such as Grady Sizemore, Michael Cuddyer, or Carlos Beltran. The platoon of Jed Lowrie and Mike Aviles would presumably slide over to third. The production from those two will most likely not match that of Ortiz, but if the Sox could grab Beltran, his production will outweigh the young guys in place in right field now, and it could all even out.
The third option, trading Youkilis is possible, but it seems unlikely. Based on the rumors I have heard, I don’t think they will get any good value going that route. With that being said, I could live with either of the first two options. If the Sox can get Ortiz on a reasonable one year deal, they could jump all over that and live with Youkilis’ somewhat diminished performance at third base. However, I am more of a proponent on the second option. I’m not sure how Youkilis would react to being made a DH, but I’m sure he’d suck it up, Plus, he could easily fill in for Gonzalez and Lowrie/Aviles once and a while to fill any inner-defensive needs. Also, with the expected bounce-back of Carl Crawford, a possible new right fielder, and a rejuvenated Youkilis; the Red Sox offense should still be an elite force even with the departure of David Ortiz. Whatever the team decides to do with their veteran third baseman, it is starting to become apparent that his time with this team may be in its last final years. As a result, the team should make one final sacrifice to the Greek God of Walks.