It’s early 2002. Delmon Young is at the local indoor batting cage in his hometown of Camarillo, Calif. He’s the only player the owners let use a wooden bat. In his final round of the day, Young takes five swings in a row, each of which is identical. Parallel-universe identical. The yellow rubber balls -- all five of them -- fly on the same path, with the same velocity to the exact same hole in the netting.
Young was, at the time, possessed of a tireless work ethic, which saw him spend up to four hours a day either on the field or in the gym. He looked like a 25-year-old playing with children. He was a grown man playing boys. His speed, power and body control were nonpareil. And there is no reason that now, at age 27, they can’t be again. It’s not Delmon Young’s present that makes him potentially the most impactful free agent still on the market this offseason. It’s his past.
In the next year, after that hitting session, Young would win the state title for Adolfo Camarillo High School and be drafted by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
He was touted as a sure thing -- with the size, speed and power -- to be a perennial all-star, far surpassing his older brother Dmitri. Tampa Bay’s selection of Young with the first overall pick was seen as a no-brainer.
The arm that so effortlessly fired 96-mph peas from the mound in high school threw out Ichiro Suzuki at third -- on a line -- when the former Mariner was at the height of his powers in 2006.
Young finished second in Rookie of the Year voting in 2007, hitting .288 with a .408 slugging percentage and a .723 on-base percentage, with 13 home runs, 10 stolen bases and 93 RBI in 162 games.
Young would go on to hit double-digit dingers each of the next six seasons, but he would do it for three different teams. Young had developed a reputation as a bit of a handful, to say the least.
His exit from Tampa -- with a reputation that he was petulant, hard-headed and immature -- was colored by a 50-game suspension in 2006 due to a notorious bat-throwing incident in which he struck a home plate umpire. He was beginning to show signs of mirroring the weight struggles that plagued his older brother Dmitri’s career.
His plate discipline was, to say the least, horrid, as he struck out 127 times in 645 at-bats in 2007, and 24 times in 126 at-bats in 2006.
So, Young and the Rays parted ways after the 2007 season, and over three seasons and change in Minnesota, Young re-dedicated himself to fitness, dropped 35 pounds and stealing a career-best 14 bases -- the second year in a row he swiped double-digit sacks. From 2008 through 2010, Young hit no worse than .284, but in 2011, he was once again shown the door after a .266 start, with just four home runs and 32 RBI in 84 games, during which he struck out 55 times and had one stolen base.
Neither the power nor the speed that made Young the top overall draft pick were there anymore -- or at least not evident. Then he went to Detroit, and grew up.
Young granted few one-on-one interviews. He focused. He went to work. He finished the 2011 season with eight home runs in 40 games with the Tigers, hitting .274 with 32 RBI and a .458 slugging percentage. In 2012, he hit a career-high 18 home runs with 74 RBI and 27 doubles in 151 games during the regular season, but in the postseason, he was a revelation, hitting .353 with two homers and six RBI as Detroit swept the New York Yankees out of October in the ALCS, earning series MVP honors. In 13 postseason games in 2012, Young hit .313 with a .542 on-base percentage and a .859 OPS, crushing three home runs, knocking in nine and slugging two doubles while scoring five runs for the Junior Circuit champs.
Young is still a large man, at 6-foot-3, 240 pounds. It’s unlikely he’ll ever be the speedster he once was, and that’s why he still sits, at the beginning of the new year, unsigned. Those old questions about his discipline (he struck out 112 times in 574 at-bats in 2012) are still rightly asked.
But, the body control, the wrists, the cyclonic lower half -- those are all there, still. It was just two years ago that he hit 21 home runs and drove in 112 runs. While Young has spent time in three different organizations, he’s still only entering his eighth year in the league at the age of 27. Are his off-field troubles behind him? The only one who can make that determination is him. In April, he was suspended seven days after being arrested on hate-crime allegations.
But, the fact remains that he has the size of a linebacker, a plus arm, whip-like wrists, a free and easy swing and plenty of power, and now he’s gotten it done in the pressure cooker of the postseason, setting the Detroit franchise’s career postseason home run mark.
One of Young’s closest confidantes -- former UCLA star and Camarillo head coach Scott Cline -- says that Young’s best baseball is ahead of him, and it’s tough to argue.
Young starts off slow -- hitting .244 in the month of April throughout his career -- but his average rises to .257 in May and .308 in June before rocketing to .333 in July with an .862 OPS -- when most other Major League hitters are hitting a wall. He’s hit .282 down the stretch in September in his career, with 52 of his 89 career home runs coming after the All-Star break.
He’s proven he can do it in the clutch. He’s proven that he can get it done over the long haul of a grueling season. Now Young just has to continue to prove that he really has grown up, and that whichever team that takes a chance on him will be making the sure bet the Rays thought they were making nine years ago.