Is Kevin Youkilis a Fit for Cleveland?


Rumors about the Boston Red Sox putting Kevin Youkilis on the trading block this year began swirling before the season even started. Adrian Gonzalez is firmly entrenched at first base in Boston—and will be for several years—and top prospect Will Middlebrooks was breathing down Youkilis’ neck at third base. So it made sense that Youkilis might be expendable to the Red Sox if Middlebrooks proved himself capable of taking over at the hot corner.

Youkilis got off to a rough start in 2012, hitting .219/.292/.344 through his first 18 games. In addition to playing below replacement level, Youkilis had his commitment to the game publicly questioned by Boston manager Bobby Valentine before he suffered a lower back strain last month that kept him out of action until this week. In the meantime, Middlebrooks staked his claim to the lineup spot, hitting .297/.325/.581 with five homers in 18 games while Youkilis was out.

A trade seems like the most likely solution to the Red Sox’ enviable problem of an overcrowded lineup, and the Indians are reportedly already in on the Youkilis sweepstakes. As of this weekend the Tribe had yet to actually discuss a Youkilis trade with Boston, and Jordan Bastian suggests that the team’s scouting Youkilis’ rehab appearances was “more Cleveland doing its due diligence than anything else.” Nonetheless, the Indians clearly have some interest in Youkilis, and the idea of the Greek God of Walks coming to Cleveland at least seems remotely plausible. So it’s worth asking: Would Youkilis be a good fit for the Tribe?

For the sake of argument, let us assume that Youkilis heretofore struggles can be largely chalked up to the smallness of the sample size. He hasn’t looked as good in 2012 as he has in the past (a fact further reinforced by his subpar plate discipline numbers) and at 33 years old it’s possible that we’re seeing some age-related decline. But one month isn’t nearly enough to write off someone with Youkilis’ history of tearing the cover off the ball. Use his .265/.368/.464 rest-of-season ZiPS projection as a baseline—it’s not nearly as impressive as the numbers he put up in his prime, but at that pace he’d still be a formidable batsman.

There are three places in the lineup into which a team could conceivably plug Youkilis: first base, third base, and designated hitter. In discussing the Indians, we can eliminate the latter position right off the bat. Travis Hafner is and of a right out to be the DH as long as he is on the roster. If Youkilis would be an upgrade over Pronk—and that is a big if—the difference would be marginal and not enough to be worth making a trade. Plus, some combination of Shelley Duncan, Johnny Damon and (eventually) Grady Sizemore can fill in at DH without issue when Hafner is out of the lineup.

Third base is a little trickier, but ultimately bringing in Youkilis to play the hot corner wouldn’t make much sense either. It’s easy to see third as a position of weakness (pun intended) after seeing Jose Lopez there for the last week—yes, he’s on a hot streak, but there’s no way he keeps this up—but he is not the Tribe’s starting third baseman. Jack Hannahan, he of the famed glove and penchant for big hits, should be back in the lineup any day now, and top prospect Lonnie Chisenhall is currently sporting a .946 OPS at Triple-A. Youkilis might be the Tribe’s best option at third were he on the roster, but again that’s not a given and it wouldn’t be worth the Indians’ while to give up much of anything to plug him in at the hot corner.

The only place where Youkilis would really make sense for the Indians is first base. Incumbent starter Casey Kotchman is hitting just .225/.303/.341—and that’s after a 3-for-4 game against the Tigers. He’s been one of the Tribe’s worst hitters while playing a premium offensive position, yet except for those games when Carlos Santana gets moved out from behind the plate Kotchman is still Cleveland’s best in-house option at first. This is what makes the idea of trading for Youkilis compelling.

But that too is an oversimplification of the situation. At the risk of sounding cliche, Kotchman’s true value does not show up in the stats. His defense is of incredible importance to the Tribe’s groundball-heavy pitching staff, and it seems like he makes up for every hit he doesn’t get by picking a ball out of the dirt or reaching for an errant throw to get an out on a play a lesser glovesman would not have made. Youkilis is a fine fielder as well, but his defense has declined and he’s played primarily third base for the last two years. What’s more, Kotchman has actually outhit Youkilis so far this year—I don’t expect that that trend will continue, but at the very least it adds an element of ambiguity to the comparison.

Even if Youkilis is a worthwhile improvement at first base for 2012 (and he probably would be), this raises another issue: the future. Youkilis would be around for only a few months; it’s hard to see the Tribe exercising his $13 million option for next year or being able to afford to keep him around long-term. Which means Cleveland’s 2013 starting first baseman is…anybody’s guess. I haven’t (yet) given up hope that Matt LaPorta will someday be an effective MLB player, but at this point we certainly can’t count on him winning the starting job. Unless someone like Jesus Aguilar or Chun-Hsiu Chen makes some huge strides this year, first base would continue to be a problem after Youkilis leaves.

A temporary upgrade would be nice, but it just might not be the most efficient allocation of the Indians’ resources. I don’t mind mortgaging the future a little bit if it significantly improves our chances of making it to October, but it’s not as though we’re going all-in in 2012. It’s reasonable to think that this team can remain in contention through at least 2014 or 2015, so is it worth giving up a significant haul of prospects—it might not take a blockbuster deal to get Youkilis but he won’t come cheap, especially if Boston has to eat most of his salary—for a player who’ll be gone at the end of the year? Cleveland would be better off going after a more complementary player with a few years of team control left than a star rent-a-player. Think Ubaldo Jimenez, not Jim Thome (in terms of their contracts).

If the Indians are able to pry Youkilis and a significant portion of his salary from the Red Sox without giving up much in return, by all means they should pull the trigger—I don’t think anyone would object to sliding a proven right-handed hitter into the lineup at first base. But looking at Cleveland’s current roster it seems like there would be better ways to upgrade the team, and acquiring him would probably cost more than he’d be worth to the Tribe.