Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Making do without Kevin Youkilis

(Update: Youkilis has been suspended for five games and will begin serving his suspension on Wednesday night.)

The Red Sox will be without the services of Kevin Youkilis for between five and eight games over the next couple of weeks, the severity of his punishment for charging the mound likely to be announced at some point today.

Red Sox manager Terry Francona, who was ejected the same inning for an argument unrelated to the brawl, seemed resigned Tuesday to losing his best hitter and most versatile infielder.

"I'm sure something will happen," he said. "We'll just wait and see. Youk's a real good player, and his versatility makes it even better for us. But we have guys -- we should be able to do this. You don't want to lose any players, but I'm sure something will happen."

Might the throw of the helmet tack on a game or two?

"Yeah, probably," Francona said.

To take a quick look at history, Coco Crisp charged the mound against Tampa Bay a year ago and had a suspension of seven games handed down the next day. Crisp appealed the suspension and played for the next two weeks or so before a conference call with league officials could be scheduled, and he then served a five-game suspension at the end of June.

(Crisp did not throw his helmet the way Youkilis did, but he did throw a punch, and that might even things out.)

It's unlikely the league will allow Youkilis to drag out his appeal as long as Crisp did given how little time is left in the season. The Red Sox travel to Texas for a three-game set on Friday and host the Yankees for a three-game set starting Aug. 21, and that means it might be most convenient for Youkilis to start serving his suspension on Aug. 24, right in the middle of a lengthy homestand.

Either way, though, Youkilis is going to miss some time.

The Red Sox will have to piece things together without him -- and the biggest impact actually won't come at the plate, particularly given the way Francona has managed his lineup to this point.

Mike Lowell will play third base just about full-time during the suspension with Nick Green or Chris Woodward perhaps being able to spell him for a day or two. (Woodward played third base 15 times for the Seattle Mariners earlier this year.) Lowell has made just five starts -- including just three in the field -- since the team's July 31 trade for Victor Martinez, and the Red Sox have made it a point of emphasis to give him frequent days off as they juggle their glut of corner infielders.

"I don't think we need to take credit for him swinging the bat well," Francona said. "He’s been a good hitter for a lot of years. I have a feeling his hip hopefully feels a little bit better. I think he would like to play more. I completely understand that. I would hope his hip feels better as he doesn’t grind on it as much, but I don’t think we need to take credit for him being a good hitter."

But the 35-year-old is hitting .333 and OPS'ing 1.107 during that span, and he's been among the team's most productive hitters in the month of August:

* Jason Bay, 1.303 (including a home run on Tuesday)
* Youkilis, 1.133
* Lowell, 1.107
* Dustin Pedroia, 1.044
* J.D. Drew, .770
* Victor Martinez, .755
* Jacoby Ellsbury, .666
* David Ortiz, .339
* Jason Varitek, .310

(As an aside: It's getting more and more obvious that Lowell needs to be taking at-bats away from Ortiz, whose OPS is only six points higher than Lowell's batting average. Ortiz has 40 plate appearances in August so far, and Lowell has just 25. If Lowell keeps tearing the cover off the ball during Youkilis' suspension, he's eventually going to force Francona's hand.)

Playing Lowell every day in place of Youkilis -- with Victor Martinez and Casey Kotchman sharing time at first base -- isn't going to ruin the Red Sox offense.

Defensively, though, it's going to be a problem.

It's been well-documented here and elsewhere: Lowell has been a woeful defensive third baseman this season. His Ultimate Zone Rating now is minus-9.9, third-worst among all third basemen, and if he'd played as many games as the Rangers' Michael Young, he'd be second-worst among all third basemen. He's made just nine errors all year, but his limited mobility means it's almost impossible for him to get to anything hit more than two steps to his left or to bunts or slow ground balls in front of him.

Youkilis hasn't been a spectacular defensive third baseman this year -- his UZR is minus-1.7 after coming in at 4.8 last season -- but his athleticism has given him a chance to make some plays Lowell has not.

On top of that, by playing Kotchman or Martinez at first base, the Red Sox have to make a compromise in some area. Kotchman has never become the Will Clark-type hitter many expected him to be, but he is a terrific defensive first baseman. His UZR this season is plus-3.8, and that's coming off back-to-back seasons in which it was at least 5.1.

According to John Dewan's Fielding Bible plus-minus system, Kotchman has been the sixth-best defensive first baseman in the major leagues this season. (The best? Youkilis.)

Martinez, on the other hand, is an All-Star hitter but an average defensive first baseman -- and certainly not in the category of either Kotchman or Youkilis. He certainly could play catcher most of the time and take at-bats away from a clearly struggling Varitek, but if Francona hasn't made that choice to this point, he's not going to do it while Youkilis is suspended.

Either way, the suspension of Youkilis is going to cost the Red Sox runs both through diminished defensive range at third base and through subpar offensive production at either first base or catcher.

On the other hand, if Lowell plays lousy defense but keeps crushing the ball at third base, he might just convince Francona he needs to be in the lineup every day as the team's designated hitter.

"I don't know why you wouldn't want good bats in your lineup," Lowell said after the game, his tone that of a veteran who doesn't want to rock the boat but who also wants to answer questions honestly and get a point across. "When you're swinging the bat well, you want to play every day. I stand by that."

That, my friends, is what you call a silver lining.

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