(A five-part series about the players most integral to the success the Red Sox enjoyed this season. Previously appearing on the countdown: No. 5 Jonathan Papelbon, No. 4 Josh Beckett, No. 3 Jason Bay and No. 2 Jon Lester.)
The Red Sox tried to throw $180 million at Mark Teixeira last winter, going all-out to find a way to land the switch-hitting first baseman, widely considered the best first baseman in the American League, and get him into their lineup.
As it turns out, the best first baseman in the American League might already have been on their roster. Kevin Youkilis followed up his MVP-caliber campaign in 2008 with yet another sensational season in 2009 -- and his emergence as a star did soften the Teixeira blow a little bit. Check out this season's leaderboard in a few advanced statistical categories, first basemen only:
1. Youkilis, .961
2. Teixeira, .948
3. Miguel Cabrera, .942
4. Kendry Morales, .924
5. Carlos Pena, .893
1. Teixeira, 146
t-2. Youkilis, 143
t-2. Cabrera, 143
t-4. Justin Morneau, 135
t-4. Morales, 135
Wins Above Replacement
t-1. Youkilis, 5.5
t-1. Cabrera, 5.5
3. Teixeira, 5.2
4. Morales, 4.3
5. Morneau, 3.2
Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA)
1. Youkilis, .413
t-2. Teixeira, .402
t-2. Cabrera, .402
4. Morales, .382
5. Pena, .374
Many analysts believe in wOBA -- a replacement for OPS that weighs on-base percentage more heavily than slugging percentage -- as the ultimate statistic to measure production of hitters. The only hitter in the American League to finish the season with a better wOBA than Youkilis was Joe Mauer, the all but certain Most Valuable Player.
If not for Mauer, in fact, Youkilis would have a pretty good argument to be considered the American League's MVP. His ability to move from first base to third base and back again only makes him a more impressive candidate: Without his flexibility, it seems unlikely the Red Sox could have done what they did with Mike Lowell and Victor Martinez down the stretch.
The Red Sox signed Youkilis to a four-year contract extension in January, locking him up through the 2012 season with a team option for 2013. He made $6 million this season and will make $9.125 million next season -- numbers that likewise afford the Red Sox tremendous flexibility. Check out the 2009-10 salary numbers for some of Youkilis' statistical peers:
Cabrera: $15 million/$20 million
Morales: $0.6 million/$0.7 million
Morneau: $10.6 million/$14 million
Pena: $8 million/$10.125 million
Teixeira: $20 million/$20 million
Other than Morales, a bargain of epic proportions, Youkilis is making less than any of the first basemen who put up similar production. He made less than a third of what Teixeira made last season, and he'll still make less than half of what Teixeira makes next season. For a team that still needs to find a thumper in the middle of the lineup for next season, that financial flexibility might be critical.
Either way, though, it's pretty clear Youkilis is right there with the best hitters in the American League -- and his defensive flexibility makes him far and away the most valuable player on the Red Sox roster.