GM: Middlebrooks needs to be in lineup

BOSTON -- In breaking down the trade that sent Kevin Youkilis to the Chicago White Sox on Sunday, Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington was clear in pointing out the catalyst to the process.

“I think we were trying to find a solution that worked for everyone,” Cherington said. “Kevin’s been an everyday player since he’s been here and with the way [Will] Middlebrooks has been playing, Middlebrooks needs to be in the lineup. That’s pretty clear.”

Cherington commended manager Bobby Valentine on his ability to shuffle the parts he had at his disposal and find time for both Youkilis and Middlebrooks, but it became evident in recent days that there was no easy solution.

After finding his name off the lineup card for the third straight day Saturday, Youkilis lashed out by saying that he was not being kept in the loop as to the situation. Cherington did not say that the words by Youkilis affected the team's pursuit of a trade. The club simply needed to find a way to make it easy on all parties involved.

“Bobby’s done the best job he can juggling the parts he has here in the last few days and trying to get people in the lineup as much as possible and move guys around, but it was a challenge and we were trying to find a resolution that would allow him to have a little bit more of a stable roster and lineup,” Cherington said. “Will deserved to be in that lineup.”

Indeed, Middlebrooks’ scorching stretch, during which he has gone 10-for-16 (.625) in a span of six games, helped to complete the process. However, what impressed Red Sox officials more was a series of games in May that saw Middlebrooks begin to slump.

The manner and speed at which the rookie made adjustments showed Cherington that he was no longer a Triple-A player.

After five games in the majors, Middlebrooks was batting .409 (9-for-22) with three home runs and nine RBIs. Over the next nine games, as pitchers made their own adjustments, Middlebrooks went 6-for-32 (.188) with an alarming 15 strikeouts.

But Middlebrooks, 23, has reached base in all but one start since. He entered Sunday hitting .331 and his sacrifice fly in a 9-4 win over Atlanta gave him 34 RBIs in his first 41 games, the most by an American League player in his first 41 games since Wally Joyner had 39 in 1986.

“He went through a tiny stretch there, he struggled with some at-bats and was in and out of the lineup, he really righted himself quickly,” Cherington said. “That gave us some comfort that this guy is ready to make the kind of adjustments that major leaguers need to make.

“He’s a talented kid, very confident and has certainly proven that he belongs here.”

Cherington feels that the players brought back in return for Youkilis, infielder/outfielder Brent Lillibridge and right-hander Zach Stewart, will prove that in time as well.

The GM likes the versatility and athleticism that Lillibridge offers. In 285 career games, he has appeared at every position except catcher and pitcher. He has a .433 lifetime slugging percentage against left-handers and ranked fourth in the AL with an average of one home run for every 14.31 at-bats in 2011.

Lillibridge has had a down year in 2012, but the Red Sox hope a change of scenery will help him return to the form he showed last year with Chicago.

“Struggled some this year but a very versatile, very athletic player who can play all infield positions, outfield, run the bases, dangerous hitter,” Cherington said. “We’ll get him here and try to get him going offensively.”

Lillibridge is expected to arrive at Fenway Park on Monday for the series opener with Toronto.

Given the ever-changing picture for the Red Sox starting rotation, Stewart could wind up having the bigger impact. A former third-round pick, he will join the rotation at Triple-A Pawtucket and refine what Cherington thinks is a quality three-pitch arsenal that can find success in the AL East.

“We believe he can develop into a good major league starter,” Cherington said. “We want to get him back in that role. He’s a big, physical, strong kid with three solid pitches. Throws strikes, has had a good minor league track record. He’s a guy that looks like a major league starter but just needs a little more time at Triple A to fine-tune things. We’re excited and he’ll be a big part of our pitching depth going forward.”

In addition to providing more pitching depth and adding a potentially valuable utility piece, the trade allows Valentine to forgo any lingering thoughts about trying to squeeze Youkilis, Middlebrooks and Adrian Gonzalez onto the field at the same time, which usually wound up with Gonzalez playing right field. The return of Cody Ross and Ryan Kalish and the emergence of Daniel Nava made that alignment unlikely, but now it is off the table.

All of this speaks to the roster stability and balance that Cherington desired when he shipped Youkilis to Chicago. Youkilis, by tripling in a run and blowing a kiss to an adoring crowd in his last act as a Red Sox player, even provided the team one final reminder of what can happen if you have the right attitude.

“I think his legacy is that he’s a passionate player, played every inning hard,” Cherington said. “Worked and sort of willed his way into being an All-Star player. Went from a good player to an All-Star player through sheer will and hard work. … For the bulk of the time here he really embodied a lot of the things that we believe in as a player.”

In Middlebrooks, the Red Sox think they have another example of that.