Are the Red Sox auditioning or keeping Kevin Youkilis?

Boston's Kevin Youkilis has to be wondering if he's staying or going. (J. Meric/Getty Images)

With the return of a struggling Kevin Youkilis to the Red Sox lineup in the last week, and the emergence of top prospect Will Middlebrooks seemingly ready to step into an everyday role at the major league level, discussions have more energetically surfaced regarding a trade involving the fan-favorite Youkilis.

Although it seemed to fans that Middlebrooks would easily usurp Youkilis – who suffered his third injury in as many years and whose effort has been questioned of late by both his own manager, Bobby Valentine, this season and ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan last season – Youkilis returned to the Red Sox with a vengeance, crushing a home run in his second at-bat in Baltimore.

With the organization’s desire to keep developing Middlebrooks at either the major league or triple-A level, Valentine was posed with a lineup problem in the form of keeping big hitters Middlebrooks, Youkilis, David Ortiz and Adrian Gonzalez contributing. However, despite this force of hand, the benefit of such lineup shuffling is that it gives the Red Sox an opportunity to, once again, audition Youkilis’ versatility in an effort to increase his trade value: Youkilis has spent the better part of the past week at his alternate position, first base – where he has a Gold Glove – in an effort to keep Middlebrooks on track at third base, he has also returned to his default position.

Youkilis has also spent time in the outfield in his career, but all parties concerned seem to recognize his discomfort there and, for now, Adrian Gonzalez has performed serviceably as a right-fielder, both in and away from Fenway.

The question, now that the proverbial writing on the wall has surfaced: What can the Red Sox get for Youkilis? There have been rumors of trade discussions with Philadelphia, but that is neither here nor there. What matters, instead, is finding the highest yield for the Red Sox All-Star. While the weakest part of the Boston club this season has been starting pitching, as of late, top-of-the-rotation men seem to have stabilized a bit and, for now, the front office has to hope that this production continues.

Elsewhere, the Red Sox outfield has been nothing short of injury-prone this year, even at the minor league level, forcing Boston into the acquisitions of Marlon Byrd and Scott Podsednik, and the promotion of Daniel Nava. All been serviceable replacements for Cody Ross, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Darnell MacDonald – not to mention Carl Crawford – but a high-profile acquisition to take over in the lineup would not be out of the question.

On the other hand, although many may want to see the volatile Youkilis shipped out of Boston, the option remains that his versatility may offer a new degree of flexibility for the Red Sox that they have not had since losing Victor Martinez to free agency in 2010. When Martinez, a catcher, first baseman and designated hitter, first came to the Red Sox, the depth at catcher, first base and third base all increased exponentially and provided the Red Sox with a Designated Hitter position that followed a current trend towards versatility. With the right-handed-hitting Middlebrooks and Youkilis to compliment lefties Ortiz and Gonzalez, this gives Bobby Valentine more of an opportunity to shuffle the lineup the way he has said he wanted to since the preseason and the same way he shuffled the lineup to bring the 2000 Mets to the World Series.

Nevertheless, with the injuries that the Red Sox have endured, and the ensuing interleague travels the Sox will have to work around, it seems that Youkilis will remain with the team as an asset at least until the All-Star Break and into the weeks leading up to the trade deadline.

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