FORT MYERS, Fla. — When the Red Sox were trying to sign free-agent first baseman Mark Teixeira before last season, it seemed Kevin Youkilis would be moved from first to third.
Teixeira wound up with the New York Yankees, and Youkilis kept his spot. But when Boston attempted to trade third baseman Mike Lowell to Texas this winter, Youkilis was mentioned as a potential replacement again.
Not exactly the sort of stability most two-time All-Stars would expect. But while many big leaguers prefer to hold down one position, the uncertainty doesn’t bother Youkilis. He’s comfortable at both corners of the diamond, a luxury that gives general manager Theo Epstein added flexibility.
“I just tell Theo I need a raise every year. I just tell him I should get a bonus in there for how many times I move over,” Youkilis said, tongue in cheek. “But it’s not a big deal. It’s fun, and it’s all about winning. Whatever you can do to help your team win, that’s the key. You can’t really worry about all that other stuff.”
Although he won a Gold Glove at first base in 2007, Youkilis is adept across the infield as well. Last year, he had a .998 fielding percentage in 78 games at first base and a .974 mark in 61 games at third.
In his six-season career, he’s played second base, left field, center and right in addition to first and third.
“A lot of times you have to move because there is an injury,” Youkilis said. “It’s not like they’re just trying to get guys in the lineup and flop guys around.”
Youkilis, an eighth-round draft pick by Boston in 2001, turns 31 on March 15. He approached Epstein this offseason to talk about moves — not only Youkilis’ moves on the field but other moves affecting the team.
“He wants me to be comfortable,” Youkilis said. “I love to be comfortable wherever. I love third, I love first — put me out there. Somebody always says, ‘What would you choose?’ I say it’d be the hardest choice. But I would choose whatever would make the team better.”
And that’s exactly what Youkilis told Epstein this winter.
“If there’s a player that’s coming in, either way I’d tell Theo, ‘Make a move on what you think our team can be better. Don’t make a move just because I want to play third this year or I want to play first this year.’ And Theo knows, and that’s what Theo tells me, too,” Youkilis said.
“It’s a good line of communication that wasn’t there before and now it is there. And it’s a good thing that we have a good understanding, (manager Terry Francona), Theo and I, which makes it a lot more fun to play here.”
Youkilis’ versatility makes him a valuable component.
“He is a kid that is an organizational player that works his way through the system, makes the big league club, is a good player, works hard, and makes himself into a great player,” Francona said. “Good baserunner. Gold Glove-caliber defense with some home runs, drives in 100, a guy you want to hit right in the middle of your order. He’s turned himself into that type of a player. I don’t know if scouts saw that when he was drafted. He’s developed into a mainstay on our club.”
Although Youkilis takes pride in his defense, fielding is just a means to an end.
“I always joke around, but I’m kind of serious in the fact that we play the field so we can hit,” he said. “That’s one of the things I always joke about, but it’s a little bit true. But you also have pride in a sense. You don’t want to make errors and stuff like that. You have to work hard at playing a position.”
Last season, Youkilis hit .305 with 27 home runs and 94 RBIs. His average fell below his career-best .312 in 2008, but above his career mark of .292. He hit .259 batting third in the lineup and .338 batting fourth. As a third baseman, he hit .286. While playing first, .325.
Like his position on the field, Youkilis’ spot in the batting order matters little to him.
“I think you just stick to your strengths,” he said. “You can’t change who you are just because of where you’re hitting in the lineup. You have to go out there and stick to your strengths and learn from your weaknesses. You don’t really go up there like, I’m hitting fourth today, I better hit a home run or I’ve got to hit a grand slam. You’ve got to go up there and get a hit in a situation or move a runner over.”
He’s also heard talk that the 2010 Red Sox will be light on offense while emphasizing pitching and defense more.
“It doesn’t matter how many runs you score,” he said. “It’s about holding the opposition down. And at the end of the game if you win 1-0, it’s the same as winning 13-10.”