July 19, 2012
Did Boston Trade Youkilis Too Soon?
In July of 2004, the Red Sox traded Nomar Garciaparra, one of their longest-tenured and most popular players, to the Chicago Cubs. Garciaparra was still productive, but he’d just turned 30, and both his bat and his glove had slipped. Worse, he’d been wounded by Boston’s attempt to trade for Alex Rodriguez the previous winter and had reportedly become a distraction in the clubhouse. With Garciaparra a few months away from free agency, the Sox made the bold decision to ship him to Chicago for Orlando Cabrera, improving both their defense and their chemistry with a single swap.
We know how that trade turned out. The Red Sox won the World Series, and Garciaparra continued to decline, turning in a subpar season for the Cubs in ’05 and remaining only marginally effective until his retirement in 2010. According to a 2005 article in The Baltimore Sun, Garciaparra “was said to be stunned and depressed for the first week after his trade,” but “later came to appreciate the change of scenery, a fresh start, less pressure, different expectations.” The trade might have made him happier, but it didn’t help him recapture his youth. The Sox were smart to trade him when they did.
Late last month, the Red Sox made a similar mid-season swap with a Chicago club, trading another over-30 fan favorite and impending free agent who’d become a divisive force in the clubhouse and a diminished one on the field. This time, the team was the White Sox, and the player was Kevin Youkilis.
From 2006, his first full year, through 2010, Youkilis was Boston’s most valuable player, averaging nearly five WARP per season. But in 2011, Youkilis was worth just over two wins, as separate DL stints for lower back tightness and a sports hernia sapped his strength and limited his availability. He had surgery for the sports hernia last October, but this season, the back problems returned, sending him to the DL for 23 days. When he was able to play, he played poorly, hitting just .233/.315/.377. Thirty-three years old, with a balky back and a below-average bat, Youkilis looked like he might be approaching the end of the line. Boston decided to bail out before he reached it, sending him to the White Sox on June 24th for roughly $2.5 million in salary relief, since-released utility man Brent Lillibridge, and Zach Stewart, a low-ceiling right-handed starter now pitching for Triple-A Pawtucket.
Almost four weeks later, the question has to be asked: Did the Red Sox sell too soon? In 19 games and 86 plate appearances after the trade, Youkilis has hit .315/.407/.534. Meanwhile, Will Middlebrooks, the 23-year-old Red Sox rookie third baseman whose .326/.365/.583 line at the time of the trade seemed to make Youkilis expendable, has slumped to .192/.204/.346 since, as an unrefined approach has taken its toll. (His 5.7 strikeout-to-walk ratio is the third-worst of any AL batter with at least 200 PA.) On a team level, the Red Sox have gone 9-11, while the White Sox have won 12 of 19.
The Youkilis the White Sox have seen so far looks a lot like the Youkilis the Red Sox saw from 2009-11: