Wednesday, May 12, 2010

It's Delmon Young Day!

Note: In the third installment of Twins’ bloggers addressing a common theme on a given day (Nick Punto and 2010 Predictions being the first two), we’ll focus today on the much-maligned, somewhat enigmatic, yet talented Twins’ outfielder Delmon Young. Be sure to check across the blogosphere for essays from many of the fine Twins’ bloggers. A special thanks to Andrew Kneeland for providing the inspiration.

Ever since he was acquired by the Twins on November 28, 2007, Delmon Young has been scrutinized heavily by Twins’ fans. Brought to Minnesota along with infielder Brendan Harris and minor league outfielder Jason Pridie in exchange for starting shortstop Jason Bartlett, starting pitcher Matt Garza, and minor league pitcher Eduardo Morlan, the deal for Young did not exactly quicken the collective pulse of Twins’ fans. Though Young was coming off a 2007 season which saw him hit .288/.316/.408 with 38 doubles and 93 runs driven in as a 21 year-old, little was done to exacerbate the skepticism of Twins’ fans. Many felt that giving up Bartlett and Garza would likely be a risky move. The fact that Bartlett batted .265/.339/.361 and Garza was 5-7 in 15 starts for the Twins in 2007 and battled with the field staff did little to calm the nerves.

Of course, the off-season of 2007-08 was very tumultuous for Minnesota fans in general. Torii Hunter signed a big deal with the Los Angeles Angels and the Johan Santana saga was about to culminate in a forced trade to the New York Mets for a package centered around another enigmatic outfielder – Carlos Gomez. Throw in losing the team’s solid (if not spectacular) starting shortstop and a potential long-term rotation leader in Garza, and the Twins had much to worry about heading into 2008.

And, predictably, Young disappointed.

Although he batted a somewhat respectable .290/.336/.405 for the season, he struggled to produce, not notching his first homer until June and knocking in 25% fewer runs than the year before. While Young was scuffling along for the Twins, Garza was winning 11 games and Bartlett was solidifying the Rays’ infield as the formerly hapless team battled all the way to the World Series while the Twins saw their season come to an end in a one-game playoff loss to the Chicago White Sox. To say that fans were upset with Twins’ GM Bill Smith for making this move would have been an understatement.

Still, for many (including this blogger) it was far too soon to pass any judgments on the trade. First off, Young was still only 23 years-old after the 2008 season, and the early-career comparisons to Frank Robinson were ridiculous. Young addressed a legitimate hole in the Twins’ lineup, which was right-handed production. Secondly, it’s not like Bartlett was the second-coming himself when he was with the Twins – and certainly not in his first season with the Rays. Although his .286 batting average in 2008 represented an improvement over his final year as a Twins, his OBP was ten points lower and his slugging percentage was an identical .361 over the previous year. Still, as the shortstop was receiving completely misguided MVP consideration and Twins’ fans were seeing their previous starting shortstop playing in the World Series, it was easy to see why many labeled the trade as a bust. Finally, although Garza demonstrated some of the promise for which the Twins had hoped when they spent a first round pick on him in 2005, he was not exactly tearing things up in 2008. He went 11-9 with a fine 3.70 ERA and an xFIP of 4.48, but starting pitching was far from the Twins’ biggest problem in 2008. Still, many Twins’ fans were probably secretly happy that the team actually traded from a position of strength (i.e., starting pitching) for an area of concern without having the move forced by contract considerations.

Young was handed a spot with the Twins in 2009 but was expected to share some time with a five-man outfield featuring Michael Cuddyer, Denard Span, Carlos Gomez, and sometimes Jason Kubel. Young responded by hitting a putrid .241/.276/.315 in April with just two extra-base hits in 58 plate appearances. By the All-Star break, Young was still scuffling along at .266/.292/.344 with 6 doubles, 3 HR, and 25 RBI in 202 plate appearances (with an inexplicable six walks) for a struggling Twins’ team. However, by the end of the season, thanks to Justin Morneau’s injury forcing Cuddyer into the infield and Gomez’s lack of consistency forcing him to the bench, Young was in the lineup every day and hit .340/.364/.544 in September with 7 doubles, a triple, 4 HR, and 18 RBI in 110 plate appearances. His torrid September helped cement him into the Twins’ plans for 2010.

The Twins traded Gomez to the Milwaukee Brewers in the off-season and planned to go with Young in left field every day for 2010. Despite signing Jim Thome to a free agent deal, Smith and manager Ron Gardenhire stressed that Kubel would DH, Young would play left, and Thome would come off the bench. Of course, Young has gotten off to another slower-than-expected start, hitting .267/.323/.442 in 96 plate appearances through Sunday’s game, and Kubel has seen quite a bit of time in left field to start the season despite a slow start himself.

So is Young a bust at age 24? Absolutely not. However, there are plenty of deficiencies in his game. For one, the guy does not take walks, as his career .289/.322/.417 batting line suggests. In 1.947 big league plate appearances, Young has walked 82 times. His eight free passes this season are already approaching the 12 he received all last season. Secondly, his production numbers are low for a player who was expected to be a big run producer. Though he has slugged .417 for his career, he was a .518 slugger in the minors and has yet to show he can produce consistently. In a lineup where he is protected by Joe Mauer, Morneau, Cuddyer, Kubel, and/or Thome on a nightly basis, Twins’ management should expect more than a .416 slugging percentage with the Twins.

Thirdly, Young is a terrible defensive player. Despite having a reputation as a solid outfielder when he was acquired by the Twins, Young has proven to be an adventure in left field. He compiled a UZR/150 mark of (-22.9) runs last season, which followed up a (-18.9) mark in 2008. This means he was over 22 runs below league average defensively last season using a metric evaluating arm, errors, and range. He is a liability out in the field for a team which prides itself on team defense. One has to wonder how much of the Twins’ (-5.3) team UZR/150 mark was attributed to Young’s misadventures.

Delmon Young remains somewhat of an enigma at age 24. It is too early to evaluate his career after fewer than 2,000 plate appearances, but it is highly unlikely that he will be the player evaluators thought he would be when he was the first player taken in the 2003 draft. Still, he has shown signs of plate production – albeit streaky – over his short tenure and should hit for far more consistency in a Twins’ lineup with plenty of protection. This blogger would have been very pleased to have seen the Twins break camp in 2010 with an outfield featuring Cuddyer in right, Gomez in center, and Span in left every night, but am willing to take the good with the bad with Young. It’s up to him to prove me – and countless other Twins’ fans – wrong the rest of the way.

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