First, they do actually need a third baseman for next season. Prior to the team’s Youk-infusion in May, they were relying primarily on Orlando Hudson and Brent Morel. Hudson is 34 this year and looks spent; I can’t imagine him starting third base for any team this September, let alone all of next year. Brent Morel is somewhat young (25 this year) and will definitely be cheaper in 2013. He also has a career 63 OPS+, meaning he’s hitting about 37% below league average in that time. In his 125 plate appearances in 2012 alone, he carried a 14 OPS+. That is downright unacceptable for any team to start, let alone one with hopes of contending.
The free agent replacements are equally unimpressive. According to MLB Trade Rumors, these are the free agent third basemen for this winter:
Geoff Blum (39)
Miguel Cairo (39)
Eric Chavez (35)
Mark DeRosa (38)
Brandon Inge (36)
Maicer Izturis (32)
Jose Lopez (29)
Placido Polanco (37) - $5.5MM mutual option with a $1MM buyout
Mark Reynolds (29) - $11MM club option with a $500K buyout
Scott Rolen (38)
Mark Teahen (31)
Miguel Tejada (39)
Ty Wigginton (35) - $4MM club option with a $500K buyout
David Wright (30) - $16MM club option with a $1MM buyout
Kevin Youkilis (34) - $13MM club option with a $1MM buyout
I think any team can immediately cross off Blum, Cairo, Chavez, DeRosa, Inge, Lopez, Teahen, and Tejada. Some of those guys shouldn’t even be playing next year, let alone starting. Izturis and Rolen are probably stop-gaps at this point, best left for case of an emergency. If you really need a third baseman come February, they can probably help. But you shouldn’t be planning on getting them in November. Polanco probably falls into that group as well, should the Phillies not want him back (and I doubt they will). David Wright almost certainly will have his option picked up, so you can take him off the list too. Wigginton almost certainly won’t have his option picked up, but you really don’t want him except maybe as a last man off the bench. Reynolds has been awful too, and like Wigginton, is only nominally a third baseman at this point. The White Sox farm system is universally regarded as the worst in the Majors due to Jerry Reinsdorf’s unwillingness to spend, so no help will likely come from there.
If the White Sox turn down Youkilis’ option, they can still resign him. However, they’ll be bidding against other team, meaning he’ll probably become more expensive and/or a longer-term commitment. Additionally, I’m not so sure Youk won’t be worth the money. Kevin Youkilis will be 34 next year, and has been worth 1.2 Wins Above Replacement, according to Fangraphs. They project him to finish with 2.5 WAR this season. On top of that, the past three seasons, he’s been worth (going backwards) 3.7, 4.1, and 5.9 Wins. He probably won’t reach that peak again, be another 2+ Win season doesn’t seem unreasonable. Based on last season’s spending, the current estimate is $5 million per WAR on the free agent market, meaning Youkilis will likely be worth $12.5 million for this season. The price will, if anything, inflate this off season, meaning a $13 million for Youkilis doesn’t sound so bad, especially with the Sox’s alternatives being so awful.
Maybe this was just an off-the-cuff answer and the team hasn’t actually discussed Youkilis’ option, but if they have, I can’t help but think that they’re missing something.