Kevin Youkilis settles in at first
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- When the Red Sox's Kevin Youkilis arrives at the ballpark this season, there will be no need for him to check the lineup card that hangs on the clubhouse wall.
For the first time in his big league career he knows exactly where he'll be playing on a daily basis.
A third baseman by trade, Youkilis has become the club's full-time first baseman the past few seasons, but because of his versatility, manager Terry Francona has no hesitation penciling in Youkilis wherever needed. When that need arises, he's usually tossed back across the diamond to third. Youkilis has proved he can handle both positions, and even won a Gold Glove for his defensive prowess at first base in 2007.
At the end of this past season, Youkilis spoke with general manager Theo Epstein and Francona about the constant switching back and forth and how it was taking a toll on his body.
"It does wear on your body and mind, and it can be tough," Youkilis said. "They know I'll do anything to help the team. I'll play anywhere they need me to play. They also understand it's not the right way to go about things, having guys go back and forth all the time, because when you're an every-day player it's not an easy transition."
Boston Red Sox
Management took his concerns to heart and did something about it.
With Mike Lowell's health and production in question, Epstein acquired veteran third baseman Adrian Beltre and signed him to a one-year deal worth $9 million during the offseason, which means Youkilis won't have to worry about stability in 2010.
"It's good knowing I'm playing one position, barring an injury," he said. "But the big thing is I'll be at first base this year."
At least for this season.
Beltre's contract includes a player option for 2011, but whether he stays in Boston after 2010 remains to be seen, and Youkilis knows his versatility could be utilized again.
"Theo and Tito both keep saying their thanks to me, because it's so much easier for them. If they have to make a move, they know I can play third or first. They've been very appreciative of that, and it's been great," he said.
Francona and Youkilis both made their Red Sox debuts in 2004. The manager knew all about his newest rookie player and the talents he possessed. From the first time Francona put Youkilis into the lineup, those abilities and his determination were quickly showcased.
"He handles everything so well," Francona said. "We basically just wind him up and let him play. I don't think it has ever affected him going to third base. I don't think much bothers him. He just likes to play."
And play he has.
Youkilis has been a model of consistency during his six years with the Red Sox. Entering the 2010 season, he has a career average of .292 with 93 home runs and 408 RBIs. His defense, at both positions, has been solid.
Even in the minors, it didn't take him long to figure out that versatility would help him reach the majors sooner than expected. But after playing 72 games in his rookie season, in which he compiled a .260 average with seven homers and 35 RBIs, Youkilis split the next year between Boston and Triple-A Pawtucket. Because he had options remaining, he was shipped up and back between the minors and majors, playing 43 games for the PawSox and 44 games for the parent club.
It was a very frustrating year for him, but when he reflects on it, he realizes it was a positive experience.
"I learned in 2005 that I need to be more versatile to stay in the big leagues," he said. "I wanted to be in the big leagues and stay in the big leagues. Finally I understood that, and with the help of veteran players telling me it would be a good experience.
"No one knew I was going to have a career like I've had so far," he added. "People didn't think I would perform at a higher level. They thought I could be an every-day player, but people didn't think I would be an All-Star. I didn't know if I could do it, either. I was very confident in my abilities, but the versatility allowed me to get a spot in the big leagues in 2006."
It was during that year the Red Sox acquired veteran third baseman Lowell as part of the Josh Beckett deal, which brought the pair to Boston from the Florida Marlins in exchange for four players, including infielder Hanley Ramirez.
"Mike is one of the best defensive third basemen to play the game, and he's a great offensive player," Youkilis said. "So that meant I would play first base, and my versatility allowed me to be an every-day player for the Boston Red Sox, which is a big deal. It's helped me ever since."
When he was playing third in the minors almost exclusively, Youkilis was putting up solid numbers. A third baseman moves a lot less than a first baseman does, so playing the left side of the infield helped Youkilis at the plate, because his body wasn't worn down like it would be if he were playing first.
"It does take a toll," he said. "You're always moving around and putting yourself in position for throws. I always felt third base was a breath of fresh air, because if you don't get one ball hit to you, you're not moving. You're just standing around, watching the game and having fun. There are positives and negatives to both, and I enjoy both positions just as much."
If one day Francona and Epstein decided to allow Youkilis to make his own decision regarding which position he wanted to play, he said it would be a tough one.
"I love third base because I always played it," he said. "But I'm good at first base, so I would have to weigh my options. I would just tell them, 'Whoever is the best player you can get in here, get them and then decide where I play.' I just want to help the team win."
In 2008, teammate Dustin Pedroia won the American League Most Valuable Player award. Youkilis finished third in that race, and believes the reason he earned so much attention for the MVP was because of his ability to play both positions.
His on-field leadership extends into the clubhouse, especially during spring training with all the young prospects at big league camp. It's not unusual to find Red Sox first-base prospect Lars Anderson sitting with Youkilis. The two talk about a lot of things, but mostly baseball.
"He's been awesome," Anderson said. "I remember last year he talked to me in the weight room about different ways I could do things, and it was really helpful. This year we've talked about fielding and his mental approach to fielding. Even if it's not advice, he's really cool to talk to. I hope to mirror him in a way that I hope to be a professional and know how to act and play hard."
Youkilis, who turns 31 on March 15, believes he's entering the second half of his career, and plans on producing for the long term, no matter which position he plays.
"Overall, it's about winning here," he said. "I think if I stay at one position all year long, it will make the team better off in the end."
Joe McDonald covers the Red Sox and Bruins for ESPNBoston.com.
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