Around the league, Kevin Youkilis has a reputation for being a fiery, emotional player who rarely holds anything back. His antics don’t always go over well with fans of other teams. Or players from other teams. Or umpires, for that matter.
But in Boston, Youk is a much-loved part of the club’s core. A home-grown Red Sox star who has been with the organization since he was selected as an eighth round draft choice in 2001.
Youkilis has no illusions about the type of player he is. As he said in a recent interview with ESPNBoston’s Joe McDonald, “I don’t have to be best friends with all my teammates and I don’t have to be best friends with guys around the league, but as long as they can say, ‘He plays as hard as he can every day…”
There’s no questioning that. Youkilis grinds out virtually every at-bat as though it is a game-changer. He’s not flashy and doesn’t even necessarily look like an athlete. But his dedication shows through his excellent numbers, and his consistency has become crucial to the club’s success.
So when he began talking to McDonald about the possibility of leaving the Red Sox when he becomes a free agent, it got Boston’s attention.
“I don’t know what their (the Red Sox) plans are past  but I actually think it would be cool, if I don’t play here, that there’s going to be another guy to enjoy the opportunities that I had,” Youkilis said during the interview. “I’ve been thinking about that a lot. Probably for the first time in my life I haven’t worried about if I had to go to another team and it doesn’t bother me…”
His words were those of a man making peace with the possibilities. It’s difficult to imagine a Red Sox team without Youk, but next season could well be his last in Beantown.
Here are five reasons why.
At the moment, Youkilis is a tremendously productive player getting the job done at the plate and fielding a quality third base. His lifetime OPS of .888 speaks to his level of production, and The Greek God of Walks moniker, though inaccurate, is still a sound description of his on-base skills.
But the man is 32 years old. He’ll be 34 prior to the start of the 2013 season. Assuming he gets to that point without a contract extension, he’ll probably hit the free agent market looking for one last big deal.
How far will the Red Sox be willing to go to re-sign a stocky 34 year old with plenty of mileage?
There will be other teams in need of his services who won’t have the depth that Boston enjoys. If a bidding war ensues, it would likely end with Youk leaving town.
Hand in hand with the timing of his free agency is the probable decline he’ll face. Youkilis is already at the tail end of his prime, playing a demanding position and going all-out on every play. He’s a hard swinger who has taken more than his share of bumps and bruises.
Anyone who watches Youk play knows how often he drills foul balls off his feet or how often he launches himself after a line drive. At some point, the body begins to break down.
Career trajectories of other players offer plenty of evidence; eventually Youk’s numbers will diminish. This is especially true defensively, where losing a step at the hot corner could be problematic for the team.
With Adrian Gonzalez firmly established as the Red Sox first baseman for most of the next decade, where would Youkilis fit?
If he can’t play third, the options are limited. The team could experiment with putting him in right field, but remember that there are increasingly positive signs that Josh Reddick or Ryan Kalish could handle those duties.
A move to DH would be possible, depending on what happens with free agent to be David Ortiz. But whether a hard-nosed player like Youkilis would be willing to accept being taken off the field and limited to hitting remains to be seen.
In the background stands Middlebrooks, Boston’s No. 1 prospect. At age 22 he’s not yet MLB-ready, but by the end of next season that will probably change.
Middlebrooks mans third base, has solid power, and is viewed as potential starter with big upside. The Sox are going to want to get him in the lineup, which reinforces the reality that Youkilis’ future at third is limited.
Once Middlebrooks gets the call, finding enough room for everyone becomes an issue because of the deals that Boston has made. Again, right field is the only real question mark as neither Middlebrooks nor Youkilis can play the middle infield positions.
With A-Gon at first and Carl Crawford signed to a long term deal in left, Youk could easily become the odd man out.
Youkilis is a Cincinnati native whose parents still live in the area. In the McDonald interview, he talked about the possibility of going home to play for the Reds.
“If I were to go anywhere, I would want to go to Cincinnati and play in front of my parents at home. I think it would be really cool for my dad and my mom, but especially for my dad, growing up in Cincinnati, that would be a real cool thing.”
Of course, talking about it and having it happen are two very different things. Remember that the Reds have Joey Votto at first base, an outfield crowded with youngsters and a league with no DH position. So it’s not like Youk is a perfect fit.
But as his career winds down, it’s easy to understand why Youkilis might want try for a homecoming.
Boston’s Approach Toward Aging Veterans
Few teams or fanbases embrace their stars like the Red Sox. In some ways, it’s an obsessive love born from 86 years of misery. But in recent season, the club’s ownership has proven itself to be pragmatic above all else.
No matter how beloved a guy may be, he is not irreplaceable. The Red Sox went with their heads over their hearts when it came to guys like Pedro Martinez (left) and Nomar Garciaparra. Two of the franchise’s most productive and important players were sent away when they became potential liabilities.
Other vets, like Jason Varitek and Time Wakefield, were brought back only because they agreed to reasonable prices and contract terms, something that a 34 year old Youkilis may not be willing to do.
If his demands aren’t in line with what the organization feels it can offer, sentiment won’t stand of the way of allowing Youk to leave.
What Fans Should Hope For
We should all want Youk to finish his career as a Red Sox. He’s been part of the family from the get-go, and seeing him in another uniform would be tough to take.
But for him to re-sign and stick around, several things have to happen.
The most significant issue is that he needs to find a new position. That in itself is not a problem, as he’s always been willing to play where needed. Bouncing from third to first and back again hasn’t fazed him, and Youk has even enjoyed the rare outfield appearance.
But the roster will impose its own limitations. He can’t return to first base unless Boston wants to make Gonzalez into a DH. And if David Ortiz re-ups after this season, the DH spot may be spoken for.
Still, there are a couple of scenarios to hope for here.
One is that Ortiz does re-sign. After all, we don’t want to lose Big Papi either, but that’s another article. To make this work, his new contract would need to be of the one or two-year variety. By 2013, Ortiz will be 37 and could be contemplating retirement. If he’s willing to take a reasonable amount of money and consider shared playing time, keeping both him and Youk is possible.
The other scenario puts Youkilis in an outfield platoon situation and has rotating positions. For someone so established, this seems unlikely. But it’s not impossible. Remember that Jacoby Ellsbury will also be a free agent in 2013, and his agent is Scott Boras.
There’s no telling whether or not the Red Sox will be able to keep him, although if forced to choose between locking up Ellsbury and hanging on to Youk, Boston should choose the former. If Ellsbury walks for free agent money, retaining Youkilis could work.
Youk has the arm to slide into right field if Boston wanted to try a combo of Carl Crawford and Josh Reddick in center. That might seem outlandish, but Crawford has the speed to play the position.
Admittedly, these outcomes are long shots. When one considers all the angles it seems like letting Youk move on is the most likely future. But if that does happen, it will be tough to take.