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June 4, 2012

Out of Left Field

The Red Sox Roster Crunch

by Matthew Kory

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How do you solve a midseason roster crunch? If there are two players for one position, there are a number of options. Trade one of the players, demote one, put one on the disabled list, or even sit one on the bench and play the hot hand. None of those solutions necessarily maximizes the team’s assets, but sometimes that is okay. If we are talking about two last-guy-out-of-the-pen types, then it isn’t of particular importance.

Sometimes the stakes are higher. When the Yankees traded for Alex Rodriguez, they found themselves with two Hall of Fame-caliber shortstops and only one shortstop position (Joe Maddon hadn’t been invented yet). Demoting, trading, and the rest of the above list were not options. Sometimes there are too many babies for the bathwater. Nobody wants dirty babies.

Eight years later, the Red Sox find themselves in a similar, if less star-encrusted, bind. After another midseason injury to starting third baseman Kevin Youkilis, the Red Sox called up 23-year-old Will Middlebrooks to keep the seat warm. Kevin Goldstein rated Middlebrooks a four-star prospect and ranked him as the third-best in the Red Sox system. Baseball America put him first. Middlebrooks hit .285/.328/.506 at three levels in 2011 and followed that up by crushing the ball at Triple-A this season, hitting .333/.380/.677 with nine homers in 100 plate appearances.

Upon arriving in Boston, Middlebrooks did nothing to quiet the hype. In his first three games he had five hits, three of which went for extra bases. He posted a 1.156 OPS with runners in scoring position. One game, manager Bobby Valentine even hit him second in the order. In the 18 games Youkilis missed, Middlebrooks hit .297/.325/.581 with five home runs. This was the ascension of the next Red Sox third baseman, and we were all witnesses.

Then Kevin Youkilis came back.

Red Sox Nation collectively said, “Oh yeah! I totally forgot about that dude.” Normally the solution to such a situation is to slap the slugging 23-year-old on the back, tell him his time is soon, and send him back to the bus rides and Happy-Meal-level per-diems of Triple-A. Maybe that’s what the Red Sox should have done. But they didn’t do that.

At the same time Youkilis had been healing on the DL, so had virtually all of Boston’s professional outfielders. Jacoby Ellsbury, Carl Crawford, Cody Ross, Ryan Sweeney, Darnell McDonald, Jason Repko, and Ryan Kalish were all on the DL. This meant the Red Sox needed productive outfielders but had more productive corner infielders than they had spots for. Keeping bench- and Triple-A-quality outfielders in the starting lineup while demoting the hot-hitting Middlebrooks was somewhere between an undesirable option and a nonstarter. So, get the braintrust together and, hey! I got it! Why not move a corner infielder to the outfield?

But who? Middlebrooks had never played the outfield in his career going back to Little League. Youkilis had played the outfield more recently than that, two games each in 2008 and 2009, but four games hardly made him a major-league outfielder. Also, anyone who saw him move around third base wasn’t too eager to give him more space to patrol. Also also, he hated it.

That left one more option: first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, who had played one game in the outfield for the Rangers in 2005 and, more pertinently, two last season when the Red Sox were dealing with NL rules and wanted both his and David Ortiz’s bats in the lineup. Gonzalez as a Gold Glove first baseman was hardly the team’s first choice to move off his position, but once the options became Gonzalez in the outfield or four plate appearances a game to one of Che-Hsuan Lin, Marlon Byrd, or Scott Podsednik, well, the choice got easier.

That’s where the Red Sox are right now. Adrian Gonzalez is getting regular starts in right field, Kevin Youkilis is playing first base, and Will Middlebrooks is starting at third. This arrangement has worked without incident so far. Youkilis came back on May 22nd and, through Sunday, had hit .314/.385/.543 in 11 games. Middlebrooks is still hitting as well. But, you don’t move your starting first baseman to right field permanently in the middle of the season, right? That would be crazy.

Or would it?

OK, it kind of would. So what do the Red Sox reasonably do? They’re stuck with three players for two positions. The decision will only get more difficult as the outfielders start to get healthy and return to the team. Crawford, Ellsbury, Ross, and Sweeney were all expected to be, to varying degrees, important parts of the team. Soon enough there won’t be room to keep Gonzalez in right, right?

As I see it, there are three reasonable solutions.

1. Make Adrian Gonzalez a regular outfielder and deal Sweeney or Ross

This is the least likely to happen. Sweeney is cheap, good on defense, and productive offensively (though it’s an open question if that will continue), and putting a long-time first baseman in the outfield carries significant injury risk. Gonzalez isn’t hitting particularly well now, but losing him for any length of time would be a body blow to Boston’s playoff chances. You have to believe putting him in the outfield full time would increase the likelihood of that happening. It’s been fine as a short-term solution, but more than that borders on dangerous.

2. Demote Middlebrooks
This seems like the easiest solution. Middlebrooks has been excellent since his arrival, but there are red flags. In 106 plate appearances he’s walked four times and struck out 29 times. That’s what we in the biz call a bad ratio. This has been a steady problem for Middlebrooks throughout his time in the minor leagues as well. It’s possible (some would argue very likely) that this is who he is, that his discipline may improve on the margins but in the end he’s a high-strikeout, low-walk guy who hits for power and plays good defense. There’s nothing wrong with that, but this roster jam creates an opportunity for the kid to learn, or at least try to.

3. Trade Youkilis.
It makes sense, as Youkilis’ contract is up after the season and Middlebrooks is both cheap and, at least to this point, productive. It should come as no shock that the Red Sox are already exploring this option. Youkilis is in the final year of his contract, which pays him $12 million this season. That isn’t cheap, but a former All-Star on a one-year deal with the flexibility of a team option at $13 million (with a $1 million buy-out) has value. Some value. Probably. I think.

Trading Youkilis might net something worthwhile in return, but with the money involved it’s doubtful that whatever Boston received would impact this year’s major-league team. Looking over the team’s 40-man roster shows how little room there is. The outfield is full and should return to strength in a few months. The same can be said of the bullpen, and unless another team is willing to deal a young starting shortstop with on-base skills, there isn’t much room in the infield, either.

If the team decides to go back on the experiment to make Daniel Bard a starter, then there is a spot in the rotation, although they do have Aaron Cook coming off the DL soon. But how many teams would want to simultaneously take on Youkilis and get rid of a good starting pitcher? If a team is adding Youkilis, they fancy themselves a contender, and contenders don’t deal good starters midseason.

Here’s the real problem though. If Youkilis gets injured again (quite possible) or underperforms (unlikely, and if so he’s probably hurt), then the team can just call up Middlebrooks. If the Red Sox trade Youkilis and something happens to Middlebrooks, they can’t call Youkilis up. He’s gone. Trading Youkilis means committing full time to the rookie, and there are some questions as to whether or not that is the right thing to do.

The Red Sox are spending $175 million on player payroll this year. This is a team that is committed to winning, or at least is trying to. There is nothing wrong with playing a rookie at third base, but when that rookie has plate-discipline problems like Middlebrooks does, questions are raised about his viability going forward.

If they didn’t have any other options, then you swallow those questions and push forward, but in this case there is another path. It’s an easily trod path, too. Once the injured players start returning and the outfield returns to strength, the Red Sox should send Will Middlebrooks back to Triple-A. The Kevin Youkilis era in Boston will probably end after this season, but there is no reason to rush it. 

Matthew Kory is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Matthew's other articles. You can contact Matthew by clicking here

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