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The tough trade that had to be made

Posted by Peter Abraham, Globe Staff  June 24, 2012 09:29 PM

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There was plenty of emotion on the field and in the stands at Fenway Park on Sunday and deservedly so.

Kevin Youkilis was a member of two World Series teams and played parts of nine seasons for the Red Sox. He was a career .287 hitter with an OPS of .875. Beyond the statistics, it's accurate to say he played as hard as he could every second he was on the field.

How do you trade a guy like that?

"He worked and sort of willed his way into being an All-Star player," GM Ben Cherington said. "Went from a good player to an All-Star player through sheer force of will and hard work. He was obviously a huge catalyst for us for several years there. ... For the bulk of the time here, he embodied a lot of things we believe in."

Youkilis was never the swiftest, strongest, or most graceful athlete on the field. But nobody played with more passion. Umpires and opposing players felt that passion, too. It was all part of the package.

So was being a good member of the community. Youkilis used his Boston celebrity to help a lot of people, mostly kids in need and veterans. He had his own charitable foundation and lent his presence to plenty of other worthwhile endeavors.

So it was goosebump time at Fenway in the seventh inning when Youkilis was pulled for a pinch runner, his good friend Nick Punto. The two hugged like brothers. Then Youkilis saluted the crowd, embraced Dustin Pedroia, and came back out of the dugout for a curtain call.

"Oh, man," Pedroia said. "We all love Youk."

"It's an emotional time for everyone," Cherington said. "For Kevin, for his teammates. Kevin has been here for a long time and has been a great player."

But today was as much about the cold-hearted business of baseball as it was emotion.

Youkilis is 33 and has missed 132 of the last 396 games, most due to injuries that have landed him on the disabled list.

His batting average has dropped to .272 in the last three seasons and his defense is not as good at third base as it was at first base.

Will Middlebrooks is a better option at third base. The Red Sox also had to get Gold Glove first baseman Adrian Gonzalez out of right field. Somebody had to go and that was Youkilis.

"Middlebrooks needs to be in the lineup. That's pretty clear," Cherington said. "Bobby [Valentine] has done the best job he can at juggling the parts he's had and trying to get people in the lineup as much as possible and move guys around. But it was a challenge and we're trying to find a resolution that would allow him to have a little more of a stable roster and lineup and Will deserved to be in that lineup."

Youkilis also didn't get along with Valentine, that was obvious to everybody. Leaving Youkilis on the roster as a bench player would have been asking for trouble.

In Chicago, White Sox GM Kenny Williams said with a smile that he couldn't tell reporters what Youkilis said to him on the phone.

"He wants to come in and he wants to prove some people wrong," Williams said.

You get one guess who that is. But somebody had to play the bad guy and that was Valentine's job.

Be happy for Youkilis, not sad. He now gets a chance to contribute to a contending team instead of stewing on the bench. Chicago was getting almost no production from Orlando Hudson and needed a replacement badly.

Youk is newly married and there's a baby boy on the way (get the Brady hair, kid.) This is a new chapter in his life in a lot of ways.

The White Sox play four games at Fenway Park starting July 16. Assuming Youkilis is healthy enough to play, that will be quite a scene.

Under the circumstances, the return for Youkilis wasn't going to be great. Zach Stewart has been traded three times in four years now and there's a reason for that. He's a semi-decent prospect but not somebody teams feel compelled to keep. The Sox will put him in the rotation at Pawtucket and hope he can be useful down the road. He's young enough to amount to something.

"We believe he can develop into a good major league starter," Cherington said. "He's had a good minor league track record. He's a guy who looks like a major league starter. He needs more time at Triple A to fine-tune things."

Stewart also has two options, so he offers roster flexibility.

Brent Lillibridge is a utility player who hits lefties fairly well, or at least has in the past. He plays every infield and outfield position and has some speed. Lillibridge hit .258 /.340 /.505 last season, so there's something there.

Lillibridge and Punto seem a little redundant. But the roster can be adjusted over time.

In addition, the Red Sox saved $2 million. The White Sox will pick up $1 million of Youkilis' salary this season and are responsible for his $1 million buyout at the end of the year. Maybe that $2 million helps swing another deal next month.

Cherington handled this well. The hardest thing for a GM is knowing when to cut ties with a cornerstone player. But it's usually better to act quickly than wait too long. Sentiment is for chumps when you're the GM.

Nomar went. Manny went. Pedro went, Johnny went. They all go eventually. David Ortiz is the last player remaining from the 2004 team and one day he'll be in the middle of this awkward dance.

Baseball can pause for a nice standing ovation, but baseball never stops. By the time the game was over, the nameplate was gone over Youkilis' locker and his stuff had been packed up. Home clubhouse man Tom McLaughlin had just enough room to slip in a souvenir lineup card.

Somebody will probably have that locker tomorrow.

The Red Sox will miss Youkilis, but everybody will move on. The Blue Jays are at Fenway tomorrow night and there's another game to win.

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