The best of all possible third basemen, even if that's not saying as much as it might seem at first glance.
Who would have imagined, one year ago, that Kevin Youkilis would not only be off of the Red Sox but would instead be a member of the New York Yankees? Boston fans might have seen half of it coming -- plenty of them were hoping for and expecting the emergence of prospect Will Middlebrooks this time last off-season -- but the New York part? That's a surprise to just about everyone, including the Yankees fans who will now find themselves changing their Boooos to Yooouks.
Not to speak for those fans, but it seems like there's going to be an adjustment period here for some of them. After all, Youkilis, except for the half-season played with the White Sox following the 2012 trade, is a lifelong Red Sox player, and one of the more productive of the last decade. Youkilis hit .283/.384/.482 in his career with the Red Sox, starting in 2004 and ending in 2012, sometimes at third, sometimes at first, but almost always mashing and walking regardless of the where. He also caused the Yankees plenty of damage over the years, hitting .300/.432/.483 in 99 career games against the Bombers at a time when the rivalry once more mattered.
At his peak, Youkilis was one of the top hitters in the game: from 2008 through 2010, minimum 1,000 plate appearances, Youkilis ranked seventh in OPS+, right behind Joe Mauer and ahead of Prince Fielder. That's some serious offense, but before Youkilis could ever be paid appropriately for it, his career started to falter. This, by the way, is likely why you won't see the same kind of emotional stress from Red Sox fans over Youkilis that was on display when Johnny Damon defected -- the two are at different times in their career, and even if Youkilis was the more important of the two when all is said and done, timing is everything.
Injuries were the key to that, and they are why Youkilis finds himself where he is right now, in more ways than one. His 2010 was cut short by a torn tendon abductor in his thumb, an injury he didn't bother to disclose until he was hit on the hand in a game against the Indians late in the season and an MRI caused that particular jig to be up. There was potential with that kind of injury to cause further damage, with the muscle coming off of the thumb and forever altering his production. While he escaped without that happening, plenty of other injuries caught up to him instead.
Baseball Prospectus keeps an injury database that logs every reported ache, pain, and significant injury, whether they cause players to miss time or not. Since the start of the 2011 season, Youkilis has 25 separate injury entries -- for back issues, a sports hernia, groin problems, thigh contusions, knee soreness ... if it's a body part, Youkilis has either hurt it, or will get around to it soon enough. An injury cost him his job in 2012, when Middlebrooks came up and tore apart the American League after doing the same to the Triple-A version, and fear of future injuries are what pushed the Red Sox to move Youkilis while they could, even when the return from Chicago was limited.
Youkilis was the same with Chicago as he was with Boston, at least in 2012 terms. He had his moments of healthy brilliance, but he had even more down time than that, and was continuously interrupted by aches and pains to his knee, forearm, ankle, and thigh. By the end of the year, Youkilis had both metaphorically and literally limped to a line of .235/.336/.409. That's how the White Sox, in desperate need of a third baseman at a time when the market offered no real solutions, came to decline Youk's $13 million option for 2013 and didn't bother to extend a qualifying offer for fear he would accept.
That's how we end up with Youkilis as a Yankee: he's a distressed item. As I said, injuries brought him here in more ways than one -- they made him available, and hip surgery on presumed third baseman Alex Rodriguez created a space for the Sox of both colors. While Youkilis's 2012 season might not look appealing , context says otherwise. Rodriguez is gone, and at a time when backup plans were limited. If not for Mark Reynolds non-tender and the decline of Youkilis's option, the third base market would have been comprised of Jeff Keppinger, Eric Chavez, and other part-time players like Mark DeRosa. Youkilis might not be a dream fit at third, but because of the timing and circumstance of the market, he is the optimal one. In other words, he's not Mike Schmidt, but he's the Mike Schmidt of the impoverished now.
Temper your expectations appropriately. Don't expect quality defense from Youkilis, but given the Yankees have been playing a late-30s third baseman with a pair of bad hips in Rodriguez, it might be hard to notice the difference. Youk won't hit like healthy A-Rod, either, but if he can replicate even his 2012, he'll have value -- his season wasn't pretty compared to previous Youkilis' efforts, but he was still about average at the plate, and that's more than you can ask for from the other possible replacements that were available at the position.
Plus, while it doesn't count in the standings, maybe you'll derive some pleasure from rankled Red Sox fans who are upset that yet another Boston figure has headed to the Yankees to keep playing baseball. That is, unless that very idea is causing you trouble. But, don't worry. This isn't the first Ohio-born-and-raised helmet-thrower the Yankees have employed. While New York isn't getting Youkilis at the same age they acquired Paul O'Neill, nor are they getting him with the same amount of mileage left, there are similarities in their attitudes. You might even get annoyed at how much Youkilis cares sometimes, as he storms around in the dugout following a tough out. Hell, that's how Red Sox fans felt about O'Neill until receiving their own talented player bursting with intensity during each at-bat. After watching Youkilis for years, understanding Paul O'Neill, and why Yankees fans could adore someone who was just so annoying to non-Yankee fans, became much easier. As long as Youkilis manages to succeed, maybe it will just feel like old times again.
Except for the batting stance. You'll never get used to those hands in the air, but you'll put up with it if the results are there.
Youkilis isn't who he used to be, but that's why he's not in Boston any longer, and it's also why the White Sox didn't bother to keep him around despite being in need of the very thing the Yankees were prior to their own Youkilis acquisition. The thing is, he doesn't need to be who he used to be in order to be useful to New York. If he's a shadow of his former self, he's doing what he's being paid to do, as the shadow of a former great can loom just large enough to matter. The Yankees just have to hope he can pull it off long enough to bridge them to their third baseman of the past and future, but even with Youkilis' abbreviated seasons of late, he should be up to that task.