Do you want to believe in Delmon Young? It's not hard if you look backwards a little.
Young appeared on most Twins fans' radars in November of 2007, when he was acquired as part of a six-player trade with the Tampa Bay Rays. But he had a history filled with promise with which we might not be acquainted, or now find easy to overlook. There are all kinds of sites that track players with daily updates for their careers. On of my favorites is rotowire.com, which gave yearly overviews of his progress. So let's review his record and use rotowire as another objective source.
2003 – Young was the first overall draft choice by the Devil Rays and signed a major league contract (which becomes very important) in September. The Rays debuted him in the fairly advanced Arizona Fall League, and Rotowire summarized the excitement about this kid:
“It's tough to make your pro debut in the Arizona Fall League, but that's what Young did, and he pulled off the near-impossible -- making [Rays GM] Chuck LaMar look like a genius. The No. 1 overall pick in the 2003 draft hit .417/.451/.625 in his first 15 games against pro pitching and had scouts drooling, comparing him to a young Albert Belle minus the attitude.”
Yeah, I'm gonna bold some stuff. And how much do you love the Albert Belle comparison given some of Young's later anger-management issues?
2004 – As an 18-year-old, Young played a whole season in High A-ball and dominated the league, batting .320, hitting 25 home runs, stealing 21 bases, and knocking in 115 runs. He struck out quite a bit (120 K) but he also walked 53 times and sported an impressive .386 OBP. Rotowire and the rest of the league were suitably impressed:
“Young will be the best prospect in all of the minors when the 2005 season opens—unless Tampa Bay decides to start him as their right fielder. That sounds ludicrous, but in this organization it could happen.”
2005 – Rotowire was right about that “best in all of the minors” thing. As a 19-year-old Young made Double-A look easier than High-A. He was promoted to Triple-A while he was still just nineteen years old, because in 330 at-bats he had hit .336 with 20 home runs and 25 stolen bases. He still had some problems with the strikeouts (66 K) but also drew some walks (25) and got on base regardless (again, a .386 OBP).
In Triple-A, things didn’t go as well. The power disappeared with just 6 home runs in 228 at-bats. The average (.285) and stolen bases (7) declined too. Maybe most alarming was that he was no longer walking enough (just 4) to counteract all the strikeouts (33). On the other hand, you’re talking about a nineteen-year-old promoted midseason to Triple-A. It would’ve been surprising if he didn’t struggle. Rotowire summarized the season:
“The Minor League Player of the Year put up great numbers at Double-A, but wasn't dominant in his brief stint at Triple-A -- not that he stunk, either, but the stat line shows Young very likely could use some additional seasoning at Triple-A. That's where Young will start the 2006 season; how quickly he comes up will depend both on his bat and on who's doing what at the big league level. The new Rays management team won't mind not calling up Young until after Opening Day of 2007 in order to put off his arbitration payday as long as possible; it'll be up to Young to show them that patience isn't a virtue in his case.”
Note that most of the summary talks about when he'll be called up. That would be overshadowed by an incident in his last minor league season.
2006 - Young started the year in Triple-A and drew national attention when he was suspended for 50 games for flipping a bat at an umpire after a called third strike. That may have delayed his arrival in the majors, but he was still called up and handed a full time role on the Rays in late August. He would not find himself in the minors again.
And, in fact, he couldn’t. Because Rotowire was wrong about the Rays management team not wanting to call up Young until after Opening Day of 2007. Since Young had signed a major league contract, his three ‘option years’ had already been used. (That's unlike most ballplayers, who don’t start using them until they are added to the 40-man roster.) They had been used in 2004, 2005 and now 2006. Young was going to be on a major league roster one way or the other in 2007.
Which, in retrospect, was a pretty big problem, because Young was pretty clearly not ready for that promotion. The hubbub over the suspension and the emphasis on Young’s arrival to the majors overlooked that his performance in AAA hadn’t really improved. Here are Young’s final Triple-A stats from the two years:
570 AB, .303 BA, 14 HR, 29 SB, 98 K, 19 BB.
Just viewing those stats, without all the history and publicity, the analysis would be that Young is a speedy, light-hitting, high-average guy who might struggle in the majors because he has trouble telling a ball from a strike. Instead, mostly the concern about him was the suspension:
“Young lost two months of last season when he was suspended for flipping his bat at an umpire in a Triple-A game. With that, he still put up great numbers at Durham and decent stats in his September stint with the Rays. More importantly, he showed tiny signs that he knew he'd crossed the line and had to reel in his temper. The Devil Rays expect to start the season with Young as their everyday right fielder and No. 3 hitter. With his power, speed and defense, he's a legitimate ROY candidate.”
2007 – Young didn’t win the Rookie of the Year, but he finished in second. He put up stats that are almost duplicates of those he put up with the Twins a year later, meaning he hit for a decent average (.288), not much power (13 HR), stole some bases (10 SB), but had no idea what a strike zone was (127K vs 26BB). For a 21-year-old, those aren’t bad numbers, provided he builds on them, as rotowire noted:
“Young came close to a .300/100-RBI season, a rare achievement for a rookie, especially for one who did not turn 22 until September. He'll certainly start the spring as the Twins' everyday right fielder. However, Young does need to work on plate discipline. … He did not win Rookie of the Year honors in 2007, but Young has the upside to make the resulting vote look like an utter embarrassment in a few years.”
Which brings us back to what looked like an astute trade. The Twins were searching for a young high-upside right-handed bat to plug between Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. They were able to acquire a 22-year-old who:
1. Was the first overall draft pick in 2003 as a 17-year-old
2. The best prospect in the minors in 2004 as an 18-year-old
3. The Minor League Player of the Year in 2005 as a 19-year-old
4. Made his major league debut in 2006 as a 20-year-old and
5. Finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting in 2007 as a 21-year-old.
Let’s make some blunt comparisons. Mauer was the first overall pick, but he didn’t hit like Young did in the minors. Morneau never had the minor league acclaim that Young did, nor did he put up anything close to ROY numbers in his first two years. There is nobody else on the Twins roster with Young’s pedigree. He was a thoroughbred like no other, and had just been traded to a contending team to fill the lineup void between a batting champion and an MVP.
It was easy to believe.
Next we'll look at the fall of Young and what contributed to it before we look at what the future holds for Young and the Twins.