First pitch: Sorry, but Youk's time is up


First pitch: Sorry, but Youk's time is up

MIAMI -- On Wednesday night, the decision was made for them: Kevin Youkilis, who had been struck in the ribs in his final at-bat the night earlier, was unavailable. So, naturally, the Red Sox didn't have him in the lineup.

He was examined by the Miami Marlins medical staff before the game -- no X-rays were deemed necessary -- and held out, though he would later tell manager Bobby Valentine that he was available in the later innings.

From here on out, however, the decision gets tougher.

Now that Youkilis is improving and not as sore, he should remain out of the lineup on most nights.

For the better part of the last few weeks, Youkilis has frequently been either the Red Sox' starting third baseman or first baseman as the team showcases him for a possible deal.

Mostly, his presence in the lineup has meant that rookie Will Middlebrooks, who played splendidly in Youkilis's absence earlier this season, is on the bench. Occasionally, as was the case Tuesday night, Youkilis plays at the expense of David Ortiz.

But such stratetgy no longer makes sense.

Youkilis is hitting just .219 for the season with 4 homers and 13 RBI. Over the last week-and-a-half, beginning with the start of the team's last homestand, Youkilis is hitting just .115 (3-for-28).

The hope had been that Youkilis would get hot and attract interest so the Sox could move him by the July 31 trading deadline, opening up third base for Middlebrooks for the remainder of this season and beyond.

Instead, Youkilis has done little to convince rival teams that he's worth acquiring. Scouts who remembered Youkilis being an intriguing blend of on-base ability and run-production now see
an aging, banged-up player whose bat speed has slowed.

Regular playing time can no longer be justified. While waiting for Youkilis to get hot and strengthen the Red Sox' hand when it comes to making a deal, the Sox have actually weakened themselves from a competitive standpoint. They're a better team when Middlebrooks (.290.333.492) is in the lineup over Youkilis.

Playing the veteran over the rookie has become something the Sox can no longer justify.

The trade deadline is now approximately six weeks away. If Youkilis were to suddenly get on a hot streak -- hardly unimagineable -- and spray line drives for the next two weeks, it wouldn't significantly upgrade his value on the open market.

Youkilis is what he is: A 33-year-old infielder who can play first and third capably, but prone to frequent nagging injuries and without much extra-base capability any more.

For a team in search of an upgrade at either corner infield spot -- Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, and Cincinnati, his hometown -- Youkilis could be of some help. But his value isn't likely to skyrocket because he experienced a good stretch at the plate.

All along, the Red Sox expected to transition from Youkilis to Middlebrooks at the start of next season, when Youkilis sports a 13 million option that the Sox were unlikely to exercise.

Circumstance and injury sped up that timetable. When Youkilis missed a month earlier this season due a lower back strain, Middlebrooks showed himself ready to play at the big-league level.

Since Youkilis returned, Bobby Valentine has been forced to figure out how to wedge four players -- Youkilis, Middlebrooks, David Ortiz and Adrian Gonzalez -- into the lineup at once.

In American League games, it's meant playing Gonzalez in right field, opening first for Youkilis while Middlebrooks plays third. In this current stretch of interleague games, it's meant deciding between Ortiz or Youkilis at first or Youkilis and Middlebrooks at third.

The juggling can no longer be in the Red Sox' best interest.

Perhaps the Sox should deal Youkilis for whatever modest return they can obtain. Perhaps they should keep him and use him as a valuable role player, one whose experience could help should the Sox be in contention late in the season.

But in order to give themselves a chance to be in contention in September, the Red Sox need to win games now. They remain under .500 and tied for last place in an increasingly competitive division and are in imminent danger of falling too far back if they don't soon reverse course.

Preoccupying themselves with improving Youkilis's trade value is distracting them from the goal at hand.