Player of the Year Delmon Young can impact the game in a number of ways
By Chris Kline
• Delmon Young Named 2005 Player of the Year
• John Manuel: Inside The Selection Process
• Chat Wrap: John Manuel took your questions about the selection
DURHAM, N.C.— It was early August at Durham Bulls Athletic Park, and Ken Oberkfell’s Norfolk Tides were staked to a 6-1 lead in the fourth. With Brian Daubach on third and Anderson Hernandez on first and nobody out, Norfolk catcher Mike DeFelice hit a fly ball to right field.
The play was the Norfolk manager’s first meeting with Devil Rays outfield prospect Delmon Young, who caught the ball in right. It is a meeting he will not soon forget.
Daubach tagged up from third as Young unleashed a laser to catcher Tim Laker at home plate. The throw beat the veteran first baseman by two feet, and Laker easily tagged him out.
As the 6,011 fans in attendance and all the players on the field were caught up in that moment, Laker tossed the ball down to first baseman Josh Phelps as Hernandez—equally dumbfounded by Young’s throw—was standing on second base. That completed the first triple play for the franchise since it moved to Triple-A in 1998.
“I knew what kind of arm he had, but we had nothing to lose,” Oberkfell says. “I didn’t hesitate challenging him. But I think the next time that happens, I might think twice about a decision like that. That’s a cannon out there. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that.”
It turned out the Tides had a lot to lose, as Young tripled in three runs in the bottom half of the inning and the Bulls went on to win, 13-8.
Young’s performance that August evening was emblematic of how the 19-year-old phenom can change a game, with his bat, with his arm and even with his legs. His consistently high performance and emerging talent make him our Minor League Player of the Year.
Young was on pace to win a triple crown in the Southern League with Double-A Montgomery, batting .336-20-71, when he was promoted to Durham in July. He held his own in Triple-A, finishing up at .285-6-28 for the Bulls. Overall, Young batted .315-26-99 in 558 at-bats with 32 stolen bases, a .354 on-base percentage and a .526 slugging percentage.
“Delmon dominated probably the best Double-A league this season,” a scout from an American League club says, “and as a talent rates right up there with the Andruw Joneses, the Miguel Cabreras and the Albert Belles. What he was able to do against much more polished pitchers that were often five, six, seven years older sets him apart.”
“He’s the total package in terms of tools,” Durham manager Bill Evers says. “He can do everything and do it loudly. The ball just sounds different coming off his bat than a lot of hitters in this league.
“There was a lot of pressure on him to perform when he got here, and he stepped up to that and met it head-on. He could have been the player of the year in any league he was in.”
Whenever Young’s name is mentioned, the word “maturity” is usually one of the first adjectives used to describe him. Having the tools to stay afloat in Triple-A at age 19 is one thing, but having the right mindset and the maturity level to handle that on a daily basis is completely different.
“The first thing that jumps out at you is how he handles himself,” Richmond manager Pat Kelly says. “Nothing seems to bother him. And when you see him in the dugout after he just went down on strikes, he’s on the top step watching and learning little things about how a pitcher is attacking hitters. A lot of 19-year-olds would be taking out frustrations, but he’s doing the right thing and thinking about that next AB.”
A lot of the credit for Young’s advanced approach should go to his father. Larry Young flew F-14s in the Navy when Delmon and older brother Dmitri were growing up. He likened the mental approach to the game to landing planes on aircraft carriers.
“It’s the same intense focus,” Larry Young says. “I tried to instill that no matter what you’re doing, you need to have that focus, that same drive, that certain discipline you need. And if you take that same approach, that deep mental focus can become second nature if you work hard enough at it.”
It obviously rubbed off on both, as Dmitri has gone on to be an all-star outfielder with the Tigers, and Delmon is the best prospect in the game today.
And as Yoda might say, “there is another.” DeAnn Young is a freshman power-hitting first baseman for up-and-coming softball powerhouse Oregon State.
Though Dmitri and Delmon are 12 years apart, the age gap didn’t affect their bond on the diamond. At eight months, Delmon was out on the field watching his brother play in middle school. At 3, he was hitting Dmirti fungoes every day.
“He was just out there all the time,” Larry Young says. “And Dmirti kind of took him under his wing, teaching him things about the game and eventually wound up taking him to major league clubhouses, where he learned more and more about how the game works from the inside out.”
Larry’s approach to both of his sons was quite different. Dmitri had to be coaxed to practice at times, while Delmon was always ready to go. But the timing was also different. The Youngs moved from Mississippi to Virginia Beach to Florida to Texas to Alabama while Dmitri was establishing himself as a future first-round pick; the Cardinals selected him fourth overall in 1991.
The family finally settled in Camarillo, Calif., when Larry retired from the Navy that same year.
“I was hard on Dmitri a lot,” Larry Young says. “I don’t think that took away from how much he loves the game, but sometimes it was a struggle. I didn’t know anything about baseball when he started playing. He was more into karate. I had just put down $1,500 on a credit card that I didn’t have just so he could take karate lessons. A month later he tells me he wants to play tee ball. I was like, ‘Hey, Jack, I’m getting something back on this karate thing.’
“With Delmon, I tried to be a little more laid back and just kind of let him go. And when he was ready—when he was sure he wanted to make that commitment to play baseball—I told him he needed to see this thing through all the way. Like Delmon says now that it’s finally sunk in, there’s no half-assing anything you do if you want to do it well.”
Delmon unofficially committed himself to baseball when he turned 13, and exploded on the scene in a big way as his bat did most of the talking.
“It’s not like I discovered him or anything,” Rich Aude says. “Delmon has been a legend since he was 13 hitting balls onto the golf course at the Area Code Games.”
But Aude will be forever linked to Young as the scout who brought him to the Devil Rays with the No. 1 overall pick in 2003. Aude moved on from the Tampa Bay organization after that signing to work for the Tigers, and he now works as a scout for SFX Sports Group. He also says Young’s mental approach goes beyond his tools to set him apart.
“He’s ready for the big leagues now because of that mental side of the game,” he said. “But you have to understand that mental approach was there since he was 12 or 13. He’s always had a plan. He was head and shoulders above other players as an amateur and he’s head and shoulders above other players now, primarily because of that desire and that approach.”
Another thing that sets Young apart is his ability to break down pitchers. He has a near photographic memory in terms of pitch sequences and what any pitcher he’s faced tried to do to him in any given at-bat.
“I talk to him after every game,” Larry Young says. “And he’s giving me a breakdown of everything just in case I missed it on the Internet or from the stands. But he’ll still talk about pitchers he faced in high school or before that. The other day he was like, ‘Remember that guy I faced who had the real funky delivery and wore those slick red shoes in high school?’ Yeah, right, Delmon. But he’s like that—he remembers everything.”
His approach also feeds into superior instincts, a knack for the nuances of the game that has almost become innate.
Never much of a basestealer in high school simply because he was always jogging around the bases, Young swiped 21 bags in his professional debut at low Class A Charleston in 2004. He became an even bigger threat on the basepaths this season with 32 steals in 44 attempts.
“I wasn’t really planning on stealing any bags last year until (Devil Rays field coordinator) Jimmy Hoff said I had to have at least 25 attempts,” Young says. “I was 10 out of my first 10, so I was like, ‘This is fun, let’s see how far it can go.’ “
It also helped that Young started to take conditioning more seriously after last season. He came to camp 30 pounds lighter, making him much more lean to get better jumps.
“I got to 21 (steals) last year, and then got in better shape this year and realized I had the same power and frequency in running, but I was lighter so I realized I also could be a lot faster,” he says. “(Montgomery manager) Charlie Montoyo gave me the green light and the whole team was running wild down there. I just kind of figured I could steal bags a little bit, and talked to Carl Crawford about picking the pitchers and studying their moves to get better jumps—learning the little things about being able to do it efficiently.”
Aude says the basestealing is merely more evidence of the obvious. “We’ve seen what a big threat on the bases he can be, but like everything else, Delmon can do anything in this game that he wants to,” he says.
Young isn’t just the premiere player in the minors, he is its best five-tool talent: hitting for average and power with a 70 arm on the 20-80 scouting scale, and the surprising speed that wasn’t a part of his repertoire coming into the draft.
The consensus is that Young still has work to do on his route-running in the outfield, but even that is considered average now, making him at least an average defender in right.
“Sometimes I try to do too much,” Young says. “I just happen to make a good throw every once in a while, but sometimes I try to do too much out there. I need to be more under control. I need to calm that down a little bit so I can cut down on the little silly errors I get.”
His bat is the most important tool by far, though, and the reason the Devil Rays took him No. 1 overall in 2003 and gave him a $5.8 million major league deal. And it is that tool that has scouts calling him the second coming of Albert Belle.
“He’s Albert without the attitude,” one scout from a National League organization says. “He’s a power-hitting outfielder that is everything you look for in an all-star caliber right fielder. And he just seems to get better with age—if you consider two years as a pro any kind of aging process.”
But for some, Young actually did show a little bit of attitude this season. He was suspended in Montgomery for chest bumping an umpire after a game in May, and he nonchalantly tossed his bat toward the mound after being hit by a pitch against Birmingham.
“It was nothing—just the heat of the moment,” Young says about the ejection. “A lot of times the umpires try to act a lot bigger than what they really are. They’re just supposed to be there to call the game and manage the game. Sometimes they think their job’s a little more important than what it really is, instead of just letting the game be played. It just happened. Me and the umpire were just butting heads with one another and it got out of hand.”
Makeup questions also popped up when the Rays allowed him to room with outfielder Elijah Dukes, and suddenly the club’s top prospect appeared to have a short fuse.
Dukes, who was arrested in January on a misdemeanor battery charge—his third arrest in 13 months—and Young are friends. Rays farm and scouting director Cam Bonifay said the reason the club put the two together was more based on what happened on the field than off of it.
“We’re talking about two of the best outfield prospects in the game,” Bonifay says. “And they are two young men continuing to mature as individuals. If Delmon Young wasn’t Delmon Young, we wouldn’t be talking about who he was rooming with.”
Once Young moved on to Durham, Dukes ran into more difficulties, including blowing off the Southern League all-star game because he wasn’t named as a starter.
“We’re good friends,” Young says. “He’s not as bad as everyone says he is. He’s really not as bad as anyone thinks. People are just afraid of him and don’t really want to get to know how he is. If you’re not afraid of him, he’s just a normal person. He’s a great athlete with a lot of tools. You’ve got to hang out with him for a good week for him to trust you and you to trust him.
“He’s a not a perfect guy—no one is. But it’s hard for him to trust people when people go by what they hear and don’t have the chance to meet him.”
Whether Dukes ever joins Young in a big league outfield, it would seem that with shortstop B.J. Upton and Young that the Devil Rays have a bright future. But with Upton and Young both sitting at home after the minor league season ended, rather than earning September callups to the big leagues, it only highlighted the uncertainty surrounding the organization.
Stuart Sternberg is expected to take over as team president at the end of the season, and a shakeup of the front office could follow (see Page 5).
All of this leaves Upton and Young in limbo. Both expected to be in the big leagues by now, and their frustration with the organization continues to grow. It’s possible that both Upton and Young could open next season in Durham.
While he still has aspects of his game that need polish, including his plate discipline, Young’s award-winning performance has earned him a shot at the big leagues. But if he remains in the minors again next season, he’ll be a frontrunner to be the third player—joining Andruw Jones (1995-96) and Gregg Jefferies (1986-87)—to repeat as BA’s Minor League Player of the Year.
Young’s mind isn’t on winning awards, though. He’s focused on helping turn the Devil Rays from losers into winners.
“There’s hope for this organization when you look at the Braves with seven, eight rookies that I played against earlier this year having a great time up there and doing well,” Young says. “So there’s always hope.
“It’s just this organization needs to get its mind focused on winning instead of trying to do everything to hold onto a dollar. They just need to let everyone go out there and play and have fun instead of worrying about stuff that’s not even really baseball related.”
Spoken like a future big league leader. And whenever that future arrives, Young will be ready.
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