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Time to trade Kevin Youkilis?

12.27.11 at 10:45 am ET

Is it time to trade Kevin Youkilis?

Well, not ideally. We are clearly at the 70 cents on the dollar stage with Youkilis, who had his worst offensive season in 2011, a batting average 41 points below his career number and an on-base percentage 18 points lower than his .391 career mark. Throw in that he played 120 games last season — and 102 the year before — and will be 33 in April and you’ve got kind of a lousy trade chip, no?

But this is where the Red Sox are. I’m not certain they occupy a position of real strength when it comes to trade talks. Has Ben Cherington been cautious in his first three months as GM? You could call it that, I suppose — not sure I would have given up top prospects for Gio Gonzalez (career 1.49 road WHIP) or handed Carlos Beltran a two-year, $26 million deal. No problem with the Sox punting on both.

I have no clue if Cherington (or Larry Lucchino or whoever is calling the shots) is going to be a competent general manager, but I’m willing to give the benefit of the doubt for now.

Here’s the problem, though: The Sox have been the third-best team in the AL East each of the last two seasons and right now are no better than the team that walked off the field after Game No. 162 in Baltimore. They’ve basically flipped Jonathan Papelbon for Mark Melancon. Makes sense from a business perspective — no way I’m giving any closer 50 million bucks — but you can’t make the case with any confidence that Melancon has a better year than Papelbon in 2012. What else you got? Nick Punto with his career .327 slugging percentage and intangibles to spare?

Look, I’m all for caution, I really am, but if this is a team that cares about winning the World Series in 2012 isn’t there a screaming need that has to be addressed?

The Red Sox did not collapse in September because they couldn’t hit. They didn’t collapse in September because of lack of leadership. They didn’t collapse in September because Terry Francona lost 75 baseball IQ points overnight. They didn’t collapse in September because Theo Epstein and Lucchino couldn’t stand each other.

The Greatest Team That Ever Wasn’t went 7-20 in September because they could not pitch during that month, posting a 1.53 WHIP and 5.84 ERA. And three months later the rotation — and the starters had a 7.28 ERA in September — still hasn’t been figured out. OK, Josh Beckett (unless he’s the biggest dope on the planet) will be in the best shape of his life, Jon Lester should be fine and Clay Buchholz (if healthy — not a throwaway “if,” either: he’s 27 years old and has started more than 16 games in a season exactly once) is a leave-alone guy in the rotation.

After that?

Well, maybe Alfredo Aceves (who was terrific in his role last year but has only made nine starts in his major league career) is an answer. Or Daniel Bard (zero major league starts — and a 7.08 ERA in his only year as a minor-league starter). Suppose Felix Doubront could potentially step in and be a fifth starter, but there’s no evidence that it’ll work.

Sure, anyone will be an upgrade over John Lackey, but that’s not really the way to go about solving the problem. If this team is going to compete with the Yankees and Rays and Blue Jays and Rangers and Angels (90-72 won’t get it done this season) they need to upgrade the starting pitching. No way around it.

And I’m not suggesting that teams are looking to deal quality starters right now — we know how it works — but if the Sox had a chance to deal Youkilis for a No. 4 starter — a 30 starts, 4.30 ERA kind of guy — I’d do it in a flash. I don’t think the rumored Youkilis for David Wright or Hanley Ramirez deals would ever happen (the Sox need to try and shed long-term money if they ever have a shot at keeping Jacoby Ellsbury) but if they can find a starting pitcher they like with a year or two left on his contract that comes close to matching the $12 million owed to Youkilis, it’s an absolute no-brainer to make the move.

The reality is that the Sox had the best offense in baseball last year with Youkilis having his worst season. Could be bounce back in 2012? Of course. And the offense would take a hit without even the 2011 Youkilis in the lineup. Right now you might be looking at a platoon of Punto and Mike Aviles (which might not be a disaster — Punto had an OPS of .814 against righties last season, Aviles .924 vs. lefties) at third base.

Youkilis is now miscast. He should be a designated hitter, not an everyday third baseman. But David Ortiz is around and is a more productive offensive player than Youkilis (and it wasn’t close last year). And let’s be fair: There is also the not insignificant matter of Youkilis as clubhouse poison. We’ve heard a million different stories since the end of the season, and plenty of ’em are probably baseless. But Youkilis did not come across as one of good guys in the whole drama by any account.

All that — plus perhaps the idea that the Sox think he’s still a very useful asset — means Kevin Youkilis will very, very likely be back with the Red Sox in 2012 (last guaranteed year of his deal, though there is a club option for 2013 with a $1 million buyout). And he’ll give the Sox tough at-bats and an OPS around .900 (probably) and, when healthy, be an integral part of a lineup that will score 900 runs or so.

But this team, right now, is flawed. Nothing has been done to address a serious weakness. Maybe they’ve offered Youkilis to each of the other 29 teams or maybe he’s untouchable, but if they aren’t going to part with Youkilis or give up elite prospects (which is a perfectly understandable philosophy) for starting pitching I don’t see how this team is going to finish anywhere but on the outside looking in again in 2012.

It might not be the ideal time to trade Kevin Youkilis. But if this is going to be more than Bridge Year, Part Deux, it might turn out to be the only solution.

Read More: alfredo aceves, ben cherington, Daniel Bard, felix doubront
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