This winter, the Indians are searching for a new first baseman and designated hitter, and they are rumored to have an interest in signing free agent Kevin Youkilis, who is coming off the worst season of his nine-year career. Knowing that he is probably beginning the decline of his career, should the Tribe take a risk on him?
Predicting how Youkilis, who will be 34 on Opening Day, will perform in the near future is difficult. In 2012, he hit only .235/.336/.409, with 19 home runs. One bad season would be easy to overlook, but this is the second consecutive year that his numbers have dropped. He batted .258/.373/.459 in 2011—nowhere near the numbers he could be counted on to reach in his prime.
But while there are some doubts about his long-term ability, this isn’t the same situation as signing Johnny Damon or Derek Lowe. Youkilis might be past his prime, but he’s still capable of playing good baseball. He is sure to provide more offensive production at first base than Casey Kotchman did, and he is an extremely good defensive player as well.
The gamble with Youkilis is whether or not the Indians can offer him a deal tempting enough to land him without locking themselves into a Travis Hafner-type situation. Cleveland doesn’t need another aging veteran taking up valuable payroll space long after he is capable of earning his salary.
Although a one-year deal would be the best option for the team, it seems unlikely that Youkilis would agree to that, considering how many other choices he has. There aren’t many valuable first or third base free agents this year, and he can play both—making him one of the most popular targets for front offices.
The one advantage the Indians have in the competition is new manager Terry Francona. Francona managed the Red Sox for the first eight years of Youkilis’ career. The chance to reunite might be enough to lure him to the Indians if faced with a choice between Cleveland and an identical offer from another team, although he will ultimately go to whoever offers him the most money.
An offer between $8 and $10 million per year for two years would not be unreasonable. Two years is long enough to compete with what other teams might offer, but short enough to protect the Indians from locking themselves into a long-term investment they might regret. Even though he is capable of hitting for power, Youkilis is best known for his skill at drawing walks. He has a career walk rate of over 12%, and even if the power begins to fade as he gets older, his ability to get on base should hold. Unless he misses time due to injuries, he should still be able to provide decent offensive production.
Youkilis is also very skilled at defense. Before Kotchman bested him in 2010, he held the record for the all-time longest errorless streak as a first baseman and earned a Gold Glove at the position in 2007. He also has a career RF/9 of 9.14 and an average of 11 DRS/year. He has spent most of his time at third since 2010, but he could easily transition back to first. He could also be used as a designated hitter, to give him time off the field and to give Carlos Santana a chance to get out from behind the plate.
As long as he remains healthy, Youkilis is a good fit for the Indians’ needs. Let’s hope he’s within their price range.