When Delmon Young was the property of the Devil Rays, he was the definition of a "can't miss" talent: with baseball instincts honed at a young age in the shadow of big league brother Dmitri, he was the overall number one pick of the 2003 amateur draft out of high school, and the consensus top prospect in the game heading into the 2006 season. Alas, Young didn't remain with Tampa Bay for long, and despite considerable physical tools, he did miss. After passing through three other organizations with increasing haste, he came full circle on Thursday, as he was was picked up off the scrapheap by the Rays as a potential late-season roster addition.
Young spent this season's first four months and change serving as the rightfielder of the Phillies. Despite his low base salary ($750,000), it was a mismatch from the start. He hadn't played rightfield since 2007, was coming off microfracture surgery in his right ankle that limited his mobility, and had spent the past two years demonstrating that he was no longer suited for an everyday job, even as a designated hitter. Even at 27 years old, he seemed too ancient to be an asset for a team desperately in need of an injection of youth. Indeed, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. had spent the winter acting as though he misheard the mandate regarding the league's oldest lineup, getting Young (as in the past-prime Michael and Delmon) instead of getting younger.
Slow to recover from his November surgery, Young didn't make his Phillies debut until April 30. In 80 games, he hit .261/.302/.397 with eight homers in 291 plate appearances, a replacement-level performance even without a body of defensive work that appears to have been put together to cheer up sick children. Via Crashburn Alley, here's just one example:
Even in just over half a season of work, Young's -1.2 Wins Above Replacement constitutes a career low, which is saying something for a player who has been in the red two other times in the previous six years. In fact, outside of a 1.6-WAR season with the Twins in 2010 — the year he set career bests by hitting .298/.333/.493 with 21 homers and 112 RBI — he's been 0.3 wins below replacement.
Where did it all go wrong for this former top talent? In 2005, Young won Baseball America's Minor League Player of the Year honors as a 19-year-old who had split his season between Double-A and Triple-A and hit a sizzling .315/.354/.527 with 26 homers and 32 steals. Even by the time he was anointed the game's top prospect, his major flaws had begun to emerge. Despite impressive power and what BA called advanced knowledge of the strike zone for his age, his 99/26 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 604 plate appearances that year testified to an overly aggressive approach at the plate that pitchers could exploit. BA's 2006 Prospect Handbook also noted his occasional bad routes on flyballs, as well as two troubling incidents that served as a portent of things to come:
"Though there are no questions about his makeup, he crossed the line twice in 2005. He drew a three game suspension after chest-bumping Southern League umpire Jeff Latter in late April. When the Devil Rays declined to promote him in September, he ripped the organization (though he later recanted)."
Young hit .316/.341/.474 in 86 games at Triple-A Durham in 2006, as well as .317/.336/.476 in 30 games with the Devil Rays, but his season was marred by 50-game suspension for hitting an umpire with a bat tossed in anger. His 89/16 strikeout-to-walk ratio, including 24/1 in 131 major league plate appearances, illustrated that his knowledge of the strike zone was not so advanced after all.
Nonetheless, Young spent all of 2007 with the Rays, putting up numbers that looked far better in a Triple Crown context (.288 with 13 homers and 93 RBI) than his actual batting line (.288/.316/.408) revealed. Though again his strikeout-to-walk ratio was lousy (127/26), he finished second in the AL Rookie of the Year balloting. The Devil Rays took advantage of that superficially positive reception, trading him to the Twins on November 28, 2007 as part of a six-player deal that brought back shortstop Jason Bartlett and starter Matt Garza, a pair who helped the newly-monikered Rays win the AL pennant the following year.
Young spent three and a half years with the Twins, occasionally showing signs of living up to the hype but just as often not; Baseball Prospectus 2009 nominated him as both "the most useless .290 hitter in the game" and "the worst defensive outfielder in the majors." His power never fully developed — only in 2010 did he even top 13 homers — and his plate discipline reached its nadir when he drew 11 unintentional walks in 416 plate appearances. When he couldn't come close to matching that 2010 breakout and appeared to be a nontender candidate in the making, he was traded to the Tigers on August 15, 2011. Though he finished the year with a combined .268/.302/.393 line, he homered five times in the AL Division and Championship Series, and the Tigers decided to keep him around for 2012 after all, signing him to a one-year, $6.75 million deal to be their primary DH.
That didn't exactly pay off. While Young did hit 18 homers in the regular season and three more during the postseason while helping the Tigers to the World Series, his .267/.296/.411 line and -0.8 WAR were typically wretched, and he made an even bigger stink off the field, getting arrested and suspended seven games for an alcohol-related anti-Semitic rant and an assault on a panhandler in New York in late April. He pled guilty to an aggravated harrassment change, underwent anger management classes and alcohol counseling and performed 10 days of community service.
Satisfied that the incident was not part of a larger pattern, Amaro signed him to a low-cost deal in January, one that included a weight clause as part of a $2.75 million incentive package. With the Phillies going nowhere, paying out the remainder of his bonuses was low on Amaro's to-do list, so they designated him for assignment on August 9 and released him five days later. The Rays signed him to a minor-league deal and assigned him to Double-A Montgomery, sparing him from the travel facing their Triple-A Durham affiliate.
Despite his poor play thus far this year, Young could conceivably help the Rays. The righty-swinger is a career .306/.343/.477 hitter against lefties, compared to .273/.305/.401 against righties. With lefty-swinging Luke Scott owning a similarly sizable split in the other direction, Young makes sense as a platoon piece. With Scott hitting the disabled list last week due to back spasms, Young's presence would require more mixing and matching from manager Joe Maddon, but perhaps no manager is more up to the task. Between Young's platoon-based prowess and his career .264/.322/.538 line in 122 postseason plate appearances, general manager Andrew Friedman seems to think the Rays have room for him. Here's what he told MLB.com:
"I think the biggest thing is as we look into September, Delmon has not only experienced the September-type atmosphere and excelled, but he's also really handled left-handed pitching over the years," Friedman said. "So I think it gives us another option to potentially leverage our roster in different ways. … He's still got strengths and abilities to still help us win games. … If he does come up, we feel like he'll have a chance to help us do that."
Particularly with rosters expanding on September 1, the Rays have little to lose. At 72-53, they're in a dogfight for the AL East flag, one game behind the Red Sox and in the top wild-card slot but hoping to buy themselves enough breathing room to avoid the one-game playoff. Young, meanwhile, is basically battling for his major league life. It's amazing to think that a number one prospect could fall so far without a major injury, but it's the reality now, and without some kind of resurgence, his winter will likely be spent scaring up a minor-league deal with a non-roster invitation to spring training. As it is, in this age of 13-man pitching staffs, a platoon DH is something few teams are willing to accommodate. We'll see what Young makes of this opportunity.