BOSTON -- When the Red Sox took an early round of infield practice Monday afternoon, they did so with a familiar cast: Adrian Gonzalez at first, Dustin Pedroia at second, Mike Aviles at short, and yes, Kevin Youkilis at third.
“He looked pretty good taking ground balls today,’’ manager Bobby Valentine said. “I wouldn’t think he’s very far away... He looked really good moving around.
“Yesterday, he took 10 swings on a soft toss, 30 dry swings. He’ll hit some balls today,’’ Valentine added.
But it won’t be in a game. Youkilis (back strain) was eligible to come off the 15-day DL on Monday, but that did not happen. Asked by ESPNBoston.com’s Joe McDonald when he expected to be activated, Youkilis answered with a shrug.
The Sox will head out on an eight-game trip starting Wednesday in St. Petersburg, Fla., but Valentine was noncommittal when asked if Youkilis would be activated then.
“I have no idea,’’ the manager said. “Whenever the medical [staff] and Kevin say he’s ready. All I’m saying, my eyes saw him taking ground balls. He looked good throwing and fielding.’’
The Red Sox have a decision to make, of course, once they do activate Youkilis: what to do with rookie third baseman Will Middlebrooks, who since his May 2 call-up has put up some history-bending numbers. He is just the third player in major league history to hit at least four home runs and drive in at least 13 runs in his first 10 games in the big leagues, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. He also has five doubles, and his nine extra-base hits are the most by a Sox player in his first 10 games since at least 1918.
Going back to the Great War, only two other Sox players hit at least four home runs in his first 10 games: Sam Horn (five in 1987) and Billy Conigliaro (four in 1969). So as a predictor of future big-league stardom, that is clearly an unreliable barometer.
Still, Middlebrooks has made a significant impact on the Sox offense since being promoted from Triple-A Pawtucket, raising the question of how the Sox can justify sending him back.
“I think that’s a little premature,’’ Valentine said when asked how the Sox plan to address the issue. “We’ll do exactly what’s right. Those things usually play themselves out. No need to make a decision until it’s time to make a decision.’’
Youkilis was batting .219 with two home runs and nine RBIs in 18 games before he went on the DL. The three-time All-Star is in the last year of a contract paying him $12 million this year ($13 million club option for 2013), and Middlebrooks, the team’s fifth-round draft choice in 2007, is projected to be in line to succeed him.
But his auspicious debut has raised the question of whether the Sox would accelerate that timetable. Talent evaluators for four major-league clubs said last week that they believe there would be a strong market for Youkilis, especially if the Sox ate a significant portion of his salary, but that teams would need to see whether the 33-year-old veteran is healthy. Youkilis has played fewer than 140 games in each of the last three seasons, and his injury history diminishes his value to some degree.
On the other hand, Youkilis when healthy has remained a highly productive hitter, though his career-low .258 average in 2011 -- when he battled back, hernia and hip injuries -- threw up a definite red flag. Red Sox GM Ben Cherington said last week that Youkilis would not lose his starting position because of an injury.
Valentine was asked about the relative merits of keeping Middlebrooks on the bench here as opposed to returning him to Pawtucket.
“Sitting on the bench is not a place for very many players, especially good young talented players,’’ he said. “What would be the purpose of having someone sit on the bench, unless there was a useful purpose for him not being in a starting role but able to contribute to a team’s wins? Is there a place for him to do that? I’m not sure.’’