A long-standing rumor became fact on Sunday afternoon, as the White Sox acquired Kevin Youkilis -- and $5.6 million of the $6.6 million owed to him -- for Zach Stewart and Brent Lillibridge. It's an exchange of three disappointments, and yet there's reason for jubilation on this side of the transaction.
Even if you assess this trade with the most jaundiced of eyes, it's a trade that addresses a need from the outside for a minimal cost. Third base has been such a void on the South Side Sox that an underperforming Youkilis stabilizes the position. And Youkilis' relationship with his manager has been so rocky that the "change of scenery" boost might not be the pipe dream it usually is for older players.
Either way, with the White Sox owing only $2.1 million, there's virtually no financial risk involved. They could get a bargain, or they could be slightly better off at an appropriate cost. That's assuming Youkilis stays healthy, anyway, but as long as Herm Schneider hasn't lost his touch, Youkilis is in a pretty good place for staying on the field.
Youkilis' best days aren't that far behind him. From 2008-2010, he hit .308/.404/.560 with two top-ten MVP finishes, followed by a decent .258/.373/.459 line in 2011. But he also misses a ton of time -- about 36 games a year, and when you look at his injury log, you'd be hard-pressed to fit it on a roll of toilet paper.
Add up those strains, pulls, bruises and illnesses, and he might be an old 33. A very old 33. And then his performance this year makes more sense.
He comes to Chicago hitting .233/.315/.377. He missed most of May with a back injury, and was Wally Pipped when rookie Will Middlebrooks took over at third and hit the ground hitting. Since his return, he's spent time at third, first, and the bench, which is part of the reason why his relationship with the Red Sox soured to the extent that they dealt him to Chicago for Lillibridge and Stewart, and also paid most of his freight.
Really, those are the two concerns about Youkilis as he changes his Sox -- his age/performance, and his attitude. And the negative implications of both seem to be minimized by the situation, and what the White Sox owe him.
That .233/.315/.377 line sucks for $12 million on a team with a healthier option, but it represents a massive upgrade for the White Sox, because their third basemen could not be any worse. No, literally -- at .167/.243/.224, third base for the White Sox is the least productive position in baseball. Youkilis' current OPS, while unsatisfactory for him, is 200 points better than anything the Sox have done, so even a mild improvement would change the shape of the White Sox lineup considerably. And, should he meet his rest-of-season ZiPS line of .260/.363/.453, well, sweet sassy molassy.
Health is the biggest obstacle in actually raising his bar, but Youkilis also has a unique set of circumstances surrounding his departure from Boston. Well, it's not unique for the Red Sox -- there have been murmurs about discontent all season, and it will probably escalate to full-blown mudslinging within a couple weeks, given what's happened in the past with guys like Nomar Garciaparra, Terry Francona, Theo Epstein, etc.
The rift between Youkilis and the Red Sox began during their collapse last season, when Youkilis was said to alienate teammates -- Jacoby Ellsbury in particular -- by demanding certain behavior and otherwise sticking his nose in their business.
After a lackluster spring and a slow start, new manager Bobby Valentine said, "I don't think he's as physically or emotionally into the game as he has been in the past for some reason." Youkilis probably hasn't forgiven Valentine for the slight, and as the injuries mounted, Middlebrooks emerged, and he spent more time on the bench, he never righted himself on the field. Gordon Edes wrote that one scout said Youkilis' swing had never looked worse. It's been crap on top of goop on top of gunk over the last nine months.
The White Sox hope a fresh start means more here than it usually does for aging, injury-riddled players. In the media conference confirming the trade, Kenny Williams said Youkilis has plenty to motivate him:
"He’s very excited to join our club," Williams said. "He has a little edge to him, which I like. I think he’s going to fit in just fine with our ballclub. I can’t tell you exactly what he said, but he wants to come in and he wants to prove some people wrong."
That "edge" has gotten him into trouble in the past. The glaring, snorting and sweating you see on TV isn't a facade, and it can wear on people when they're around him every day. Basically, he's "intense" when he's producing, and "overbearing" when he isn't.
But the personality concerns should be minimized in this situation. He was a key component for a World Series winner and annual contender in Boston, but in Chicago, he's a stranger in a strange land, and Paul Konerko already runs the clubhouse. Robin Ventura shouldn't pose any problems for him, either. Ventura may have pointed to Valentine as one of his role models for managing, he hasn't adopted Valentine's curse of gab.
More tangibly, he can help himself to as much playing time as his body will allow. Youkilis will not have to press to exceed the standards of third base this season, and that automatically addresses Youkilis' biggest beef. Orlando Hudson displayed a firm understanding of the circumstances:
"If I was a GM, I'd make the same trade," said the 34-year-old Hudson. "I'm not the best third baseman over there, plus I'm not swinging the bat well, so definitely I'd make the same trade."
When asked if he wanted to stay with the team, Hudson laughed and added, "I've got a job. Kenny, he's the man, so whatever decision he makes... But I've got to thank him, first of all, for getting me over here and giving me a chance. If things are different, no hard feelings. I enjoy the guys here, and the coaching staff's great."
Youkilis will play third, and he can even help out at first, if Paul Konerko's wrist becomes a recurring issue. So while he might raise the blood pressure of people around him, the stress he takes off the lineup card more than balances it out.
It might be the easiest fit Youkilis will face the rest of his career. The Sox will give him plenty of time and room to acclimate, so it's up to him to run with the opportunity. Or maybe just lumber with it. Nobody wants him to hurt himself.