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Delmon Young Tries to Live Up to Hype

When the Minnesota Twins traded Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett, two of their best young players whose last names didn’t begin with “M,” to the Tampa Bay Rays for Delmon Young this past offseason, it was bittersweet. Garza and Bartlett had shown a lot of potential for the Twins; Garza was a rare (for the Twins, anyway) right-handed power pitcher, and Bartlett was keeping stiffs like Juan Castro and Nick Punto from getting starts at shortstop. And then when Young got off to a slow start both in the field and at the plate this spring, things looked bleak. But Delmon has heated up over the past couple of months, and Twins fans are hoping that he can affect the American League Central race in a positive way the rest of the season.

Young was the first overall pick in the 2003 June draft out of high school in Camarillo, California. He was preceded in the majors by his older brother, Dmitri, who is twelve years his senior and currently plays for the Washington Nationals. Delmon is 6’-3” and 205 pounds, and was renowned for his power-hitting potential and cannon arm even when he was in high school. He’s also much more athletic than his brother, who has struggled with drug, alcohol and weight problems throughout his career.

Delmon was a fixture at the top of prospect lists for a couple of years, as Tampa kept him in the minors even though their team continued to flounder. He signed too late in 2003 to get any playing time that year, but hit .322 with 25 homers and 116 RBI in A ball as an 18-year-old. He dominated Double A Montgomery as a 19-year-old in 2005, hitting 20 home runs in just over half a season before being promoted to Triple A Durham. He struggled a bit late in 2006, amid reports that he was frustrated that he hadn’t yet been promoted to the major leagues.

That frustration built to a head in early 2006, when Young had an infamous run-in with a Triple A umpire. He either “flipped” or “tossed” his bat at the ump after a called third strike, hitting the ump in the arm and chest, but not injuring him. The outburst led to Young receiving a 50-game suspension, and also led to a lot of column-inches being spent by white, middle-aged sports writers on the problematic new generation of athletes coming up through the ranks. He came back from the suspension with a strong campaign at Durham, and he hit well after he was called up to the big club when rosters expanded in September.

Young had a decent rookie campaign in 2007, but he was burdened by the hyperbole which has always tailed close behind him. He’d been compared to everyone from Frank Robinson to Alex Rodriguez, which is tough for anyone to live up to. He played in all 162 games for the Rays and hit .288 with 13 homers and 93 RBI, but for the first time in his career there was more attention paid to the things that he didn’t do well: namely, draw walks and hit unbelievable numbers of home runs. His stock had sunk from once-in-a-generation talent to that of an expendable outfielder for a team that had too many, which led directly to the trade to the Twins.

After an offseason filled with questions about his plate discipline and his power, as well as his awareness in the outfield, Young set about proving his critics right in the first two months of the season. At the end of May, he still had yet to homer and was hitting under .260 with only 17 walks. He showed a good ability to take the ball the other way, but was rarely driving pitches with authority, seemingly content to pound the ball into the ground. He also played an occasionally miserable left field, getting bad jumps on fly balls and generally looking lethargic.

In the month and a half since, he’s still not drawing any walks, but he seems to be working the count better. He’s also hitting the ball for much better power and average, as he’s added four homers and has raised his batting average to nearly .300. As I’m writing this article, Young just slashed at the first pitch with runners on the corners and two outs, grounding out to second base, so he’s still frustrating to watch at times. But I guess it’s the little things that this fan takes solace in. His effort in left field is much improved, and he seems much more comfortable as a part of the Twins. He looked incredibly uncomfortable as part of a cheesy promotional commercial before the season started, but he looked less uncomfortable doing a promo for his bobblehead night last week.

The jury is clearly still out on Delmon Young. He’s only 22, so there’s still time for him to show the tremendous power at the major-league level that he demonstrated in the minor leagues. He’s not ever going to have a high on-base percentage with his current approach, but he may hit for a high enough average and enough power for that to be less of a hindrance. He’s got the physical tools to be a tremendous outfielder, but he’s still got a ways to go on that count. If you’d asked me in May if there was any chance that he could develop into a star, I might have said no, but now I’d say it’s more like 50-50. Hey, sometimes you’ve got to take what you can get.

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