Leading up to the 2002 Major League Baseball Amateur Draft, the Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays had an established track record of selecting outfielders among their top picks. In 1996, with their first pick in franchise history the Rays drafted Paul Wilder in the supplemental first round, 29th overall. Because of injuries, however, Wilder never made it above High A ball. In 1997 Kenny Kelly was taken in the second round, 82nd overall but has accumulated only 26 at-bats at the top level.
In 1999, Tampa seemingly struck gold. With the first overall pick in the draft they took Josh Hamilton who, if you don't know of his "Great Story" (as every announcer will be so quick to inform you of) by now, means that you've had your head buried in the sand for the past three seasons. Although Hamilton never recorded a plate appearance with the Rays, his talent is unquestioned, and he may in fact be the most naturally gifted player in the game today.
In the second round with the 52nd pick, Tampa chose their franchise's longest tenured player and yet another athletic specimen in Carl Crawford. The left fielder, who turned down scholarship offers to play Point-Guard at UCLA or Quarterback at USC, Florida, Oklahoma, and Nebraska, is likely to be the highest compensated position player come 2010 free agency.
The oft-injured Rocco Baldelli was selected 6th overall by Tampa Bay in 2000. After using their first five picks on pitchers in 2001, the Rays went outfield crazy in 2002. BJ Upton (2nd overall, drafted as a shortstop but later converted to the outfield), Jason Pridie, Elijah Dukes, and Wes Bankston were all drafted within the first four rounds. The struggling Rays finished dead last in the standings in 2002 and were once again awarded the first selection in 2003.
From the start, Delmon Young was the obvious choice. In fact, if he had been eligible for the 2002 draft, the then 17-year-old Young, just a Junior in high school but the reigning Baseball America High School Player of the Year, may have been taken first overall by Pittsburgh instead of future bust Bryan Bullington. Young's track record was impeccable; his talent immense.
He was the younger brother of Major League First Baseman Dimitri "The Meat Tree" Young. I chose the word younger, and not little, because at 6'3", 205 lbs. at the tender age of eighteen, Delmon was far from little. He had set a tournament record in the World Junior Championships in Quebec, batting .513 and hitting eight homers in only 38 at-bats. His Senior year, in one of the toughest high school leagues in the country, Delmon hit .541 with seven homers in only 61 at-bats.
By 2005, at only 19-years-old, Delmon Young was dominating Double-A Baseball against players an average of four years his elder. In 320 at-bats with the Montgomery Biscuits, Young posted a triple slash line of .338/.389/.591 for a .970 OPS. Despite being promoted to AAA Durham in Mid-July, Young won the Southern League MVP Award for his AA achievements. At the highest non-major league level, his plate patience dropped precipitously. Although his 25/63 BB/K split in Montgomery was subpar, Delmon dropped to a 4/33 ratio in over 228 at-bats to close out the season. He did, however, post a .750 OPS in that span, more than holding his own as a teenager in AAA.
In 2006 at age 20, Young posted a AAA triple slash of .313/.339/.472 with 22 doubles, 4 triples, and 8 homers over 341 at-bats. By the end of August Delmon Young's minor league career was over after just 889 at-bats. He hit .317/.336/.476 down the stretch for Tampa over 30 games, but his 1/24 walk to strikeout rate was of concern. He began 2007 with the big club, and played in all 162 contests hitting .288/.316/.408 with 38 doubles, 13 homers, and 10 steals. Young finished second in rookie of the year voting behind future American League MVP Dustin Pedroia.
Despite his performance, and his continued improvement, Young was traded to Minnesota in the offseason as part of a package that brought back Jason Bartlett and Matt Garza.
At the time, the trade perplexed fans and pundits alike. They searched for a reason as to why, one of the most talented young players in the game's history was given up on so early in his career. Perhaps it was his substandard plate discipline, which the Rays felt would ultimately hinder his potential. Perhaps it was the result of Young's on-field altercations, like in 2006 when he was suspended 50 games for throwing a bat at a home plate umpire following a strikeout. Perhaps it was his attitude and other off-field matters related to the legal troubles of his brother Dimitri. Or Perhaps it was a question surrounding his work ethic, or lack of one, that saw his weight climb to a less athletic 230 lbs.
For the next two years, the Rays seemed like clear winners in the deal. Delmon Young stayed the same player he was from his rookie season, posting nearly identical numbers. He was a league average hitter, and a below average fielder. Due to his positional adjustment, as a corner outfielder, he was worth 1.8 wins below replacement level in that time. His walk rate even dipped and his strikeout rate climbed, slightly, in an apparent attempt to generate more power in 2009. In Tampa, Jason Bartlett and Matt Garza turned into key contributors, combining for 12.9 WAR from 2008-2009, and helped the franchise to both its first AL East title and World Series birth.
Determined to shed his looming bust label, and the fat jokes from the stands every time he chased down a ball at the Metrodome, Delmon Young worked his ass off (literally) during this past winter; shedding 35 pounds of fat and fine-tuning his swing. The hard work seemingly paid off, and Delmon Young has finally become the right handed complement to Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau that the Twins expected him to be. In 377 at-bats, Delmon's triple slash is .329/.360/.536 with 34 doubles, and 14 homers. He has only struck-out 44 times over his 377 at-bats, dropping his strikeout percentage from a career average of 18.5% to just 11.7%.
The biggest improvement has come from increased contact. After posting swinging strike rates of 16%, 16%, 13.6%, and 14.9 percent throughout the first four years of his career, Delmon now only whiffs on 9.4% of the pitches he sees. This is a remarkable improvement. This has led to an increase in overall contact (from putting a career 76.6% of his balls in play to 84.1% this year) on pitches both inside and outside of the strike zone. In fact, Delmon, who swings at roughly 40 percent of pitches outside the zone, has improved his contact on such offerings by nearly 20 percent.
In addition to making more contact, Delmon is also making better contact. His Isolated Power is up from a career average of .140 to .207. This has come from an increase in flyball rate (and decrease in groundball rate), from 32.4% in his career to 38.5%, leading to more extra base knocks. Although Delmon strokes line drives around 17% of the time, he has always had an abnormally high BABIP. In his minor league career, he posted a .355 BABIP despite similar line drive rates. In the majors, year-after-year, he's been almost as good, and amazingly consistent. From 2007-2009, Delmon's BABIP was .338, each year. In 2010, it's dropped to a career low of .337. Keep in mind that the major league average is right around .300 and you'll understand why Delmon's batting average is always so high despite the strikeouts.
His fielding has improved in 2010, likely because of the lost weight. In fact, UZR notes that the biggest hindrance to his fielding ability, his range, has gone from 18.4 runs below average in 2008 to only 2.9 runs below average this season (projected 4.7 by season's end). UZR probably isn't fair to Delmon's arm however, as scouting reports have his arm strength and accuracy rated as plus plus, meaning runners don't go on Delmon unless they're sure that they'll make it. Thin Delmon has matured into a league average Left Fielder, defensively.
The final stage of Delmon Young's development, his walk rate, has yet to improve. It still sits at 4.2% (career average of 4.0%). As Delmon continues to mature as a hitter, entering his prime, he will start to recognize some pitches better than others. His walk rate is likely to improve over time. This is something that happens to the vast majority of hitters, and especially to the great ones. How much he improves in this skill will ultimately determine his peak as a player.
In his age 25 season Delmon Young has finally reached the potential that has long been expected of him. Time will tell how much better he'll get. For now, alongside Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau , Francisco Liriano, and Scott Baker, the Minnesota Twins have to like their chances at grabbing a title within the next three to five years.
Delmon has been worth 2.5 Wins Above Replacement this season. He should finish the year somewhere between 3.5 and 4 WAR, putting him in the same class of player as teammate Justin Morneau. To pass Matt Garza (a 2.5-3.5 WAR player), and finally make the trade a "win" for the Twins, Delmon will need to continue to improve and stay consistent. Keep an eye out for a potential Rays-Twins matchup in the playoffs, both this year and in the future, as Young and Garza's career paths are certain to cross once more at a vital time.
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