As the saying goes, “in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” Youkilis looks incredible with the beer goggles of the barren third base market, despite posting the worst offensive numbers of his career at the age of 33. Once a fixture of the successful Boston Red Sox teams of the mid- and late-aughts, Youkilis has been a shell of his former self, playing in 122 or fewer games in each of the last three seasons while in an offensive freefall, his weighted on-base average going from an elite .419 in 2010 to .366 and .328 in the last two seasons.
Even a .328 wOBA, though, is above the league average for third basemen and would represent a significant offensive upgrade over what the Phillies have had dating back to the Scott Rolen years.
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However, Youkilis presents the same risk to the Phillies as Polanco did. Both players have played in exactly 344 games since 2010 and their injury histories, if printed out, could become the leading cause of deforestation. Since 2010, Youkilis has had issues with: his right knee, groin, lower back, right elbow, right ankle, right thumb, left ankle, left hip, left thumb, left foot, left thigh, abdomen, and his left forearm. Many of those were recurring issues as well. The veteran, who turns 34 in March, is the living, breathing, baseball version of Home Improvement’s Tim Taylor — at least as much as Polanco is.
When the Phillies consider bringing in Youkilis, they have to account for the very real possibility that he will miss 30 percent of the season or more as he has done in the last three seasons. Even if we are really optimistic and give Youkilis credit for still being an average player on an everyday basis, the Phillies would be forced to use a replacement-level player in his absence.
Youkilis earned $12 million and was set to earn $13 million in 2013 if the Chicago White Sox hadn’t bought out the remainder of his contract, while the Phillies declined Polanco’s $5.5 million option. If the Phillies were to sign Youkilis for at or around what Polanco was set to earn, they would be implicitly saying that Youkilis is a better bet to be an average-ish player and that his cratering in 2012 was more a fluke than anything else.
When he was on the field in 2012, Youkilis was a shadow of his former self. His walk rate plummeted to a career-low ten percent (which is still relatively good, however), his strikeout rate nearly tied a career high at just over 21 percent, and his .174 isolated power was his lowest since 2007. Throughout his career, Youkilis had been a BABIP-reliant player, posting an aggregate .336 mark between 2006-10, the 25th-highest among all qualified MLB hitters in that span of time. His BABIP dropped to .296 and .268 in the last two seasons, an indication that he is making worse contact with pitches.
In particular, his performance against fastballs has waned, especially on inside pitches. The following heat maps illustrate his transformation into a predator of the outer-third of the strike zone.
This is indicative of a player whose bat speed has hit the skids. You don’t have to think very hard to remember a player in the same shoes recently — Scott Rolen in Cincinnati. He finished 2010 with a .369 wOBA, but injuries and old age relegated him to a .294 wOBA in 269 plate appearances in 2011, and a .314 wOBA in 330 plate appearances in 2012. Specifically, Rolen’s performance against “hard” pitches went from .362 in 2010 to .291 in 2011 and .311 in 2012. This is the fate that awaits Youkilis.
If Youkilis can be had for a few millions of dollars on a one- or two-year deal, it wouldn’t be the end of the world, but the bearded warrior is in the free agent market looking for what could be the last contract of his career. GM Ruben Amaro did give Raul Ibanez an ill-advised, three-year $31.5 million contract after the 2008 season, so there is precedent for this kind of overvaluation of free agent veterans. Realistically, the Phillies are as likely to get equivalent production out of a third base platoon involving Kevin Frandsen and, say, Eric Chavez, without tying themselves up to an unmovable contract.
There are plenty of sirens in the free agent sea, beckoning wayward GM’s with their songs of clubhouse presence and experience. Youkilis is one of them, along with Josh Hamilton and Michael Bourn. A disciplined GM can guide his ship dutifully past the allure, avoiding the inevitable shipwreck that will define future seasons.