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Chicago checks Cleveland in Youkilis deal

Chicago checks Cleveland in Youkilis deal
July 2, 2012
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Cleveland and Chicago have spent most of June within two games of each other in the standings, trading the top spot a couple times.  Neither team was playing well enough to break away from the pack, with only a game differentiating their records for the month.  Those division standings could change drastically over the next few weeks, with Cleveland in the midst of a brutal 28 game stretch against teams with a combined win percentage of .552.

With the schedule nearing the half-way point, the flaws of each AL Central team have been exposed.  The good news is that there is no single powerhouse team poised to run away with the division crown, but Cleveland’s playoff hopes may be in serious danger once the dust settles following July and the trade deadline.  The White Sox fired an early broadside last week, acquiring Kevin Youkilis to man their league-worst third base slot. 

With Chicago coming out on top in the Youkilis bidding, did Cleveland’s hesitation inadvertently strengthen its rival’s position? 

The White Sox reportedly outbid the Indians, Dodgers, and others to pick up Youkilis from Boston.  Chicago gave up suprisingly little to close the deal, surrendering utility player Brent Lillibridge and pitcher Zach Stewart while only having to pay roughly $1.5M of Youkilis’ remaining $7M 2012 salary.  Youkilis has a $13M club option and $1M buyout remaining on his contract.

Lillibridge had been a super-utility player for Chicago the past two seasons after a modest minor league career.  The 28-year old showed promise over limited playing time in 2011, posting a .362 wOBA and .247 ISO in 216 PA.  However, that remains the best season of his career by far and he is a long-shot to be anything more than a versatile bench player at this stage. 

Stewart is a 25-year old pitcher who is now with his fourth MLB organization.  Chicago had converted him from a starter to reliever for this season, though he’s had difficulty adjusting to the majors in either role.  Once regarded as a decent prospect and potential back-end starter, Stewart appears to be a project player for Boston.

Considering how many teams were supposedly scouting and/or bidding on Youkilis over the past month, I was surprised at the modest price it took to snag him in the end.  Some teams were reportedly scared off by Youkilis’ poor appearance at the plate recently and did not see enough of an upside to surrender anything of value for him.  Other teams may have only had a passing interest to begin with, causing trade rumors to become inflated.  However, I think the few teams that truly needed a corner infielder will end up regretting their reluctance to pull the trigger here.

Two factors converged to cause Youkilis’ value to drop so severely: injuries and Boston’s own incompetence in handling the situation. 

Youkilis posted one of the best offensive performances of his career in 2010 (.419 wOBA), despite various injuries limiting him to 102 games.  Back and hip injuries and a sports hernia caused him to miss the end of the 2011 season, while his production slid (.366 wOBA).  Though he entered 2012 with a clean bill of health, the back issues returned.  Youkilis was rehabbing from his injury when 23-year old prospect Will Middlebrooks caught fire and ignited a new round of trade rumors for the incumbent third baseman. 

When healthy, Youkilis is a legitimate offensive threat and would have provided a notable upgrade to the teams bidding for his services.  Yes, his recent injury track record is a risk, but it’s not like Cleveland hasn’t danced around those kinds of risks before.  What about all the money and rehab time spent on Grady Sizemore and Travis Hafner?  To borrow from the Indian’s advertising campaign, “what if” Youkilis just needed more time to recover at the juncture Boston decided to dump him?

The table below compares Chicago and Cleveland’s total offensive production at key positions through the 2012 season to Youkilis’ career numbers.  Measured in wOBA (or just about any other metric) Cleveland’s production at first base is spared the indignity of rock bottom only by the Mariners (bless you, Justin Smoak).  Likewise, Chicago is dead-last in wOBA for third base and lost their starter Brent Morel to a back injury in May (Orlando Hudson has actually been an improvement). 

Season

Subject

AL Rank*

AVG

OBP

SLG

wOBA

2012

CLE - 1B

13

0.228

0.272

0.352

0.275

2012

CLE - 3B

12

0.240

0.281

0.366

0.281

2012

CHC - 3B

14

0.191

0.255

0.246

0.229

Career

Youkilis

-

0.287

0.388

0.487

0.380

*Ranked by wOBA, all values current through June 29

Assuming Youkilis falls short of his average production in the second half, that’s still a massive upgrade over the current options for both teams.  Furthermore, ZiPS projected a .387 wOBA for Youkilis in 2012, slightly below his career mark of .380.  I’m doubtful that his performance at the plate would drop off much more than that between seasons.  Even if you cherry-pick the three worst seasons of Youkilis’ career (2004-2006), you still end up with a .354 wOBA, which remains well above this season’s AL average for first base (.326) and third base (.311). 

I think reports of his supposedly poor health may have been misleading.  Youkilis may not be 100% healthy right now, but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t reach that level of performance in a reasonable timeframe after additional rest. 

Remember the situation he was faced with.  Boston’s manager publicly questioned Youkilis’ motivation, his body wasn’t cooperating, and a hot-shot kid was seriously threatening his job security.  It’s entirely possible that Youkilis rushed back from the DL either by not being totally honest about his health or because Boston wanted to get him back on the field to try and boost his trade value. 

It takes a lot to break a pro athlete’s confidence, but that convergence of events had to have weighed on Youkilis’ mind and influenced his performance.  Of course he’s going to look bad in front of scouts during a stretch like that.

Now, I can’t say for certain if he was rushed back, but Boston remains the prime culprit in shredding Youkilis’ confidence and causing him to request a trade.  Things certainly didn’t improve after manager Bobby Valentine said Youkilis wasn’t “as physically or emotionally into the game as he has been in the past.”  The Red Sox may learn a tough lesson about regression to the mean after putting all their chips on a true rookie with only 156 PA at the time. 

Meanwhile, every front office in the league could see that Boston had backed itself into a corner after completely alienating Youkilis.  As a result, Boston had very little leverage in their efforts to trade him.  This brings us back to the price Chicago ultimately paid, and more importantly, why was Cleveland unwilling to match it? 

The money involved was not prohibitive, as it would have cost around $2.5M (give or take depending on the type of talent exchanged) for Youkilis’ 2012 season and future buyout.  Plus, if he bounces back the team can exercise his option and trade him for a positive return on investment when the pressure to trade him is considerably lower. 

I believe Cleveland could have matched the talent Boston received without hurting the MLB squad.  One scenario could have been Jason Donald and David Huff or a lower-level pitching prospect.  The team has its share of spare parts kicking around in the minors. 

Boston seemed enamored with Zach Stewart’s skill set and must believe they have a good chance at turning his career around.  Otherwise, having a pitcher like Stewart end up as the centerpiece of a trade for a valuable, proven veteran is puzzling.  It’s difficult for an outsider to say whether it was a lack of options or a genuine desire that influenced Boston’s aim.  If it’s the former, the Tribe should have attempted to top the offer.

It’s also possible that Boston overplayed its hand with Cleveland and insisted on a player that the Tribe did not deem expendable.  If that was the case I wouldn’t necessarily blame Cleveland for backing out.  They obviously can’t afford to part with players like Zach McAllister at this juncture.

The fact that the Dodgers also fell short is curious though, since their need for a corner infielder matches Chicago’s.  With those two clubs competing, wouldn’t Youkilis’ return have improved?  Considering the type of talent it took to acquire Youkilis, it doesn’t sound like there were many real offers boxing Cleveland out of the talks. 

The Indians’ most glaring needs are in left field and the starting rotation, though it could be argued that the positional need gets trumped by how desperate the team is for a right-handed bat of any kind.  Given the unusual circumstances behind Boston’s hasty deal, the next trade opportunity for an impact bat will be much more costly to the buyer. 

One strategy the Indians may pursue is to target a potent platoon option on the cheap.  Acquiring a player accustomed to riding the bench who can consistently crush left-handed pitching would help patch the ailing offense.  Finding such a player may be easier said than done, since even the guys who do only one thing really well are still valuable to their team.  Such a strategy also limits the options off the bench if the new part-time player has limited defensive capabilities.

I’m concerned that Cleveland blinked and missed a good opportunity to upgrade their offense.  What’s worse, they allowed a division rival to close the deal instead.  The confluence of a seemingly low cost, right-handed bat and a division rival’s involvement should have been ample motivation for the Indians' front office to pursue Youkilis harder.

User Comments

Tony
July 3, 2012 - 1:48 AM EDT
The main issue with Youkilis was if he was healthy and if he was not a player in rapid decline. Those were major hangups among people in the industry. His career numbers are impressive, but are kind of thrown out the door until he proves to be healthy. So far this season he continues to show his power continues to drop. It fell considerably last year and has nosedived this year...and to boot his once incredible ability to get on base has flatlined this season. Time will tell if he proves to be a good pickup, but I wonder if he is a guy that just suddenly lost it. The Red Sox also wouldn't be so quick to give up on the guy if they didn't know something either.
Brian
July 2, 2012 - 5:13 PM EDT
In his trade deadline article, Jeff makes a great point about Youkilis' home/away splits the last two seasons. I admit I overlooked that, but he seems to have gotten a particularly big boost from playing in Fenway. Definitely a mark against Youkilis that I missed.
Robert
July 2, 2012 - 5:12 PM EDT
It's a little ridiculous to even suggest that the Tribe brass blinked on Youkilis. The truth is they have better players on the team right now than the current iteration of Youk that would show up in Cleveland. Hannahan and Lopez are now better than Youkilis, and at the time, they had to have the flexibility to see how Chisenhall, a #1 pick and someone they have a lot invested in, will develop this year, and they need the righty first-base time for Santana, as he will need more breaks as the summer goes on. There was just no place for Youkilis to play!
Seth
July 2, 2012 - 3:03 PM EDT
The White Sox had a clearer use for Youkilis. I wouldn't bother looking at ZiPS projections for a player who's dealing with age and injury issues, it doesn't take anything into account in that regard. Scouts obviously were scared off by Youkilis, and that's why the Red Sox didn't get a whole lot in return and had to eat his salary. I'm glad the Indians didn't trade for him. He MIGHT turn it around, but there's no good reason to think Youkilis will even be better than Kotchman, since to date, he hasn't been, and at 3rd, I'd rather stick with Hannahan and Lopez (and Chisenhall, at the time). They have a lot of holes, 1b, lf, bullpen, starting pitching, If they're going to target anyone for a trade, it needs to be for a clear upgrade, not wasting trade bullets hoping that a Youkilis performs better because he was just unhappy in Boston. The White Sox, Youkilis could keep doing what he's doing and he'd still be a slight upgrade over what they were throwing out there, so it made more sense for them.
Mike
July 2, 2012 - 2:10 PM EDT
The question is - where would the Indians have played Youkills? Kotchman is starting to hit, and I doubt the Indians would have wanted him playing at third over Hnnahan/Chisenhall. I think it might have been simply a case that Youkillis wasn't as good a fit for the Indians as he was for the White Sox.
detdawg
July 2, 2012 - 1:20 PM EDT
I don't know if Cleveland blinked, since it isn't known who from our system the Red Sox we're demanding. If McAllister was one of the players, then the Indians didn't blink, they did the right thing. With Gomez pitching ineffectively, Huff not stepping up at Columbus, and Carrasco probably not available until next year, McAllister is the #5 starter for the foreseeable future and couldn't be included in any package for Youkilis.

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