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Mustang SallysDelmon Young and Ian Stewart race for the title of top South Atlantic League prospect
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By John Manuel
ASHEVILLE, N.C.--In one inning, Delmon Young and Ian Stewart showed why they were the two top prospects in the South Atlantic League in 2004, and why they could be linked together for years as their careers arc toward what seems inevitable--major league stardom.
It was the first inning of a meaningful game, as low Class A tilts in August go. Young's Charleston RiverDogs were closing in on a playoff berth, and a sweep of the Friday night doubleheader would clinch the spot. Stewart's Asheville Tourists were playing out the string, double digits behind their Southern Division rivals from the other end of Interstate 26 after an August swoon.
Nevertheless, Stewart was going hard, working a walk after going down 1-2 in the count against hard-throwing indy league veteran Josh Kranawatter. Stewart, who scouts said ran better late in the season than he had early, stole second to get into in scoring position, and after another walk, Randy Blood singled. Tourists manager Joe Mikulik windmilled Stewart toward the plate while Young came up cleanly with the base hit in right field and readied to throw.
Stewart says he never got to face Young during his high school pitching career. The Southern California natives were teammates in Area Code Games play, they played against each other on scout teams, and they were teammates with USA Baseball's junior national team in 2002.
Now, in the 131st game of the Sally League season, Stewart got to see Young's arm firsthand. He charged around third and headed for home. Young got off a strong, accurate throw that reached catcher Josh Arhart on the fly.
The play was a close one, but home-plate umpire Mark Lollo called Stewart out. Stewart flung away his helmet in disgust with the call, and Mikulik raced down the line to argue for his player and eventually got tossed for his display.
Young just tugged on his cap, tucked his glove under his arm and ran into the RiverDogs dugout, hardly cracking a smile. It was his 14th and final assist of the season, though it seemed to embolden him for the rest of the doubleheader. He threw behind a runner who bluffed a tag-up at third base, and in the second game--a 13-0 Asheville victory--Young held Stewart to a line-drive single on a blast off the wall. He went on to hit three homers on the weekend as the RiverDogs made the playoffs.
It wasn't just the weekend that gave Young an edge over Stewart on Baseball America's prospect list in the Sally League. Young's overall season wasn't quite as good as Stewart's, but Young is five months younger and overcame a poor first month. Showing aptitude and the ability to make adjustments, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2003 draft hit .368-16-67 after June 22.
But that weekend at McCormick Field when he got the better of his friend Stewart--drafted nine spots after Young--just provided a little more evidence for Young's case. Both players spent the season dazzling Sally League fans, scouts and managers alike, making both worthy of top prospect consideration.
"They did kind of separate themselves from the rest of the league," Charleston Alley Cats manager Ken Joyce says. "Early on, I wasn't sure how good Ian Stewart would be defensively, but now I don't think he's that far behind because he's really gotten pretty good at third base. And to see the improvement Delmon has made just from spring training is amazing. They both really have a chance to be very special players."
While opposing managers are glad they didn't have to see it this season, Young and Stewart actually batted next to each other in a lineup a few years ago, with Team USA juniors in 2002. "We had a great team," Stewart says. "It was a fun group."
Managed by Edgar Soto of Pima (Ariz.) Community College, Team USA played 29 games that summer, winning 25 of them, with a roster that subsequently filled the minor leagues and colleges with top prospects. Five of the Sally League's top seven prospects--Young, Stewart, Capital City outfielder Lastings Milledge, Columbus lefthander Chuck Tiffany and Rome catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia--played for Team USA in the World Junior Championship that summer in Quebec.
Young led the team in the triple crown categories and hit a record nine home runs in the championship tournament. Milledge, who hit third in the order ahead of Young and Stewart, also hit .474 to tie Young and was second in homers and RBIs.
Stewart, who played first base, hit .329 for the summer but was at his best in Quebec, going 13-for-29 (.448) with three home runs. He only had eight RBIs thanks to Young cleaning up the bases in front of him, Soto says.
"I still kick myself that we didn't win the gold medal," Soto says. "We barely won the bronze; we had to beat Canada and they were pretty good. Lastings hit a home run to left field in the eighth inning to put us ahead in the bronze-medal game, then we kind of went off and won 12-3.
"It was an amazing team, not just in terms of talent, but the makeup of those guys."
The makeup of players such as Young and Stewart also impressed managers around the league almost as much as their numbers. Young earns praise for his professional approach, which isn't a surprise considering older brother Dmitri is a nine-year big league veteran.
Soto says Delmon approached the game like a veteran even at age 16.
"For his age, he really battled with two strikes and would make little adjustments in his swing," Soto says. "He was really a detail guy, really focused, from BP to the game."
Professional managers have had a similar reaction. Young's tools are obvious enough--a plus-plus throwing arm that most scouts rate a 70 on a 20-80 scale, and raw power that rates about the same. His hit tool also approaches 70 for scouts because Young uses the whole field, with most of his power actually to right-center and right field rather than to the pull side. His all-fields power prompted several scouts to compare him to a young Albert Belle, but Young has none of Belle's makeup issues.
Overall, Young hit .322-25-116 with a .388 on-base percentage and .538 slugging percentage for Charleston. He added 21 stolen bases in 27 attempts, and the only negative was a 120-53 strikeout-walk ratio in 513 at-bats.
"He's ahead of the game for an 18-year-old," RiverDogs manager Steve Livesey said of Young, who turned 19 just after the RiverDogs were eliminated in the playoffs. "The main adjustment he made as the season went along was in better pitch selection. As the year went on, he didn't wear down; he just got stronger."
He showed off his adjustments in Asheville. Righthander Marc Kaiser pounded Young inside with fastballs in his second at-bat and retired him on a grounder to short. One scout at the game mentioned the report on Young was that he had struggled to handle inside heat at times this year.
So Kaiser went back to the well on a 0-1 pitch in the fourth inning. Young pulled his hands in and used his natural strength to blast the 90 mph fastball over a dentist's billboard in right-center field, some 370 feet away, for his 23rd homer. "Looks like he's making the adjustment," the scout said.
Even Stewart was impressed by his former teammate. "It's hard to say Delmon can improve because he's so good already, but he has gotten pretty scary," Stewart says. "To see him adjusting to pitches and hitting with wood the way he is, it's fun to watch."
Mikulik and Rockies officials say much the same thing about Stewart, who has assumed a leadership role on both teams he has played on in his brief pro career. Stewart thought he might be promoted at midseason when the Rockies moved third baseman Jeff Baker from high Class A Visalia to Double-A, but he was glad to stay in Asheville. He had developed an especially close relationship with Mikulik and his family, and he stayed in Asheville a couple of weeks after the season, leaving only when flooding from Hurricane Francis struck the city.
"He was a pro player and knows what it's like, knows what we go through," Stewart said. "He was kind of a father figure for me, being away from home like that. That means a lot to me."
Stewart got no special favors at home, either. McCormick Field is regarded as a hitter's park, and the right-field wall is just 310 feet away. Stewart heard how some dismissed his big numbers--he batted .319-30-101 with a league-leading .594 slugging percentage and .398 OBP--but he doesn't have to be told he was actually just as good on the road (.317-15-48) as at home (.321-15-53).
"You always hear that . . . 'Asheville, it's got a short porch . . . ' I'd think about it before the season, in spring training," he says. "I made it a goal to do as well on the road as at home, and I think I played almost identical."
He also played better than expected defensively at third base. Sally League managers expressed surprise when asked if Stewart could stay at third, because they all considered him an asset defensively with good agility, a solid arm and good hands. In fact, the Rockies already are shuffling other third-base prospects, with Baker likely to move to the outfield and 2004 draftee Matt Macri slated for work at second base in instructional league.
"I coach third base, so I get to see a lot of third basemen, and I had seen Stewart last year in the Pioneer League," Kannapolis manager Chris Cron says. "I loved Stewart's approach to defense and to the game. He never got down after a bad at-bat. He knew it was part of the game, knew the ups and downs were just natural.
"It's hard to teach that, and it takes a lot of players a long time to learn and develop that approach. He's got that--and tools--and he's 19."
Stewart didn't quite meet two other goals, one being fairly tough: to go 30/30. He finished with 19 steals in 28 attempts. The other was to win. The same competitiveness evident in his reaction when Young threw him out at the plate was still burning at the end of the year.
"Ian Stewart always struck me as so hard-nosed and all-business for me," Soto says. "In that way, he was a lot like Delmon, because of their focus."
Now Young and Stewart will be linked again, by their performances in the South Atlantic League in 2004. The question of who will be the better major leaguer wasn't settled in one season, or in one weekend, or even in one play.
Let's just say Young took a slight lead.