Delmon Young’s Free Agency and His Doppleganger

In a stunning development, the Yankees reportedly have no interest in former Rays, Twins, and Tigers designated hitter and “outfielder” Delmon Young. A glance at a current rumors (as of this posting) about Young’s free agency seems to turn up at least as many reports of teams not being interesting in Delmon Young as teams that might be. Part of that might be that Young is waiting to get serious about shopping his services until he recovers from ankle surgery. Part of it might be Young’s public history of less-than-stellar behavior, both recent and in the past. And part of it might just be that over 880 major league games and 3575 major league plate appearances, Delmon Young has been mostly terrible. But is there still reasonable hope for Young to be a decent everyday player? After all, he just turned 27, was once considered the best prospect in baseball, and he has mashed the ball in recent postseasons. It might just be worth looking a bit more closely at Young alongside a player with a somewhat similar history and skill set to see where that kind of thinking can lead.

Let me be clear: I would be pretty surprised if Delmon Young did not receive a major-league deal this off-season. I am not sure he is worth much more than the league minimum, but I think he will probably get more than that (how much more is something I will not touch on here) for the reasons touched on above: his age, past prospect status, and his good hitting in the playoffs the last couple of years. I personally see him as somewhere between replacement level and a one-win player in 2013 if he is given full-time playing, and that is assuming that his hitting is still on the upswing due to his age. His defense is so poor that he should pretty much be considered a DH in terms of value.

This is not to say that there is not potential for something more out of Young in 2013. Far be it from me to deny uncertainty and the subjective impressions of informed and skilled observers who might (but also might not) see something else in Young. However, is that really that much more true of Young than any other player? This is where his doppleganger comes in: hey, remember how everyone thought Jeff Francoeur was toast and he had that nice season in 2011?

The parallel between Francoeur and Young is obviously not perfect. Francoeur has a reputation (perhaps a bit exaggerated) for being a great guy, whereas Delmon Young recently pled guilty to aggravated harassment. More germane to the on-field issues that are the focus in this post, while Francoeur was a good prospect (ranking as high as the top 20s prior to 2005), Delmon Young was a great prospect, ranking as one of the top three prospects in baseball on most lists from 2004 to 2007, and was on the top of many of those lists, including Baseball America’s 2006 rankings. (This is not intended to play “gotcha!” with prospect writers; pretty much everyone knows prospects are risky and difficult to project and there are always going to be plenty of misses to go along with the hits.)

However, there are plenty of similarities as well. Each reached the majors as very young ages and hit well in brief cameos. Young had a .348 wOBA for Tampa Bay in 131 2006 plate appearances, which was very impressive for a someone in his age 20 season. Francoeur’s Natural 2005, when he was 21, is also impressive for his .372 wOBA, even if it has been somewhat forgotten that 274 plate appearances was not all that many. Both have had their ups and downs since then, with Young not being that great for Tampa Bay in 2007 and getting traded to the Twins prior to 2008, He mostly struggled for Minnesota except for one season, then was traded to the Tigers. Francoeur had his moments with the stick after his opening outburst, but despite the Delta endorsement and being marketed the face of the franchise, his hitting balanced out to mostly “bad.” In 2009, Francoeur was traded to the Mets, where he was again mostly bad. During 2010 he was traded to the Rangers, after which he fulfilled The Prophecy and signed with Kansas City prior to the 2011 season.

Each player has also had a season where “He Finally Got It!” after years of disappointment. For Young, that season was his age-24 2010 with the Twins when he hit .298/.333/.493 (121 wRC+) with 21 home runs, even if his defense and base running still held back his value. After years of poor play after his remarkable start, in 2011 with the Royals, Jeff Francoeur regained enough pop to finish his age-27 season with a .285/.329/.476 (117 wRC+) line while gunning down plenty of base runners.

Despite those comeback seasons at relatively young ages (only somewhat young in Francoeur’s case) that seemed to some to signal “post-hype prospect finally re-breaks out!,” each went on to crash. Young hit so badly in 2011 that he was traded to the Tigers during the season. His memorable playoff performances in both 2011 and 2012 years may have somewhat overshadowed not managing even a 90 wRC+ during those regular seasons. This was particularly galling for the Tigers since he was their primary DH in 2012 (although that is probably a better option than playing him in the field). As for Francoeur, in 2012 he simply returned to being just about the worst everyday player in baseball.

It is not just the roughly similar contours of their careers that make Francoeur and Young an interesting parallel. They are also similar types of players. Both are right-handed corner outfielders. Neither is inclined to take a walk (4.1 percent career walk rate for Young, 5.1 for Francoeur), but neither has the contact skills (17.5 percent career strikeout rate for Young, 18.0 percent for Francoeur) nor the power (.141 ISO for Young, .160 for Francoeur) to make up for it (96 career wRC+ for Young, 91 for Francoeur). While pretty much everyone would agree that Francoeur is the better defensive outfielder, even there they are similar. Young has always seemed to have poor range, but, at least in the early days, threw out a decent number of runners. He is horrible overall, although his time at DH has lessened the impact on his fielding numbers, for what they are worth. Francoeur may have had decent or even good range in his early years, but his speed had definitely gone downhill. At this point he seems to be pulling an invisible trailer, and his arm is simply reducing the harm his poor range does, and probably does not even balance it out any more.

Some will want to point to Young and Francoeur’s numbers versus left-handed pitching as some big bonus. They do have very similar-looking career splits: Young has a .352 career wOBA versus lefties, and a .309 versus righties; Francoeur a .345 versus lefties and a .305 versus righties. Note that neither of those numbers are awesome versus southpaws, as some would have you believe about those players. For an average defensive corner outfielder, those are pretty average-ish overall numbers (even before regressing the platoon split), they would be the lesser half of a platoon, and as mentioned above, neither is likely an average defensive outfielder at this point. Neither is good on the bases. Young and Francoeur are the real platoon players — hitters who are just manage to be around average overall (maybe) if they have the platoon advantage — as opposed to hitters with big splits who are mislabeled as platoon players like Shane Victorino.

Right-handed platoon bats, especially those who are not good defensively, are not that hard to find. This is not to say that Young, like Francoeur, has no uses, but simply that he is not really worth much as a free agent. But again, as noted near the beginning of this post, there may be a tendency to point to upside in Young’s case, as he will only be 27, and at least at one time, his bat was seen as potentially being like that of Albert Belle. I will not pretend to have my own worthwhile scouting opinion. There is uncertainty here, and statistics cannot cover everything. After all, Young had his 2010, and Francoeur had his 2011 when many or even most thought they (especially Francoeur) were done.

However, it is worth re-stating that this sort of uncertainty, at least in statistical terms, applies to pretty much all experienced major-league players. Moreover, it is not as if there is a particularly large shroud of mystery around Young at this point, just as there is not for Francoeur. Young has over 3500 major-league plate appearances and Francoeur has over 4700. Sure, “anything could happen,” but that could be an excuse to sign just about anyone to a contract too large and/or too long. Delmon Young may have a use for some team in some particular context. As Jeff Francoeur proved on his one-year, $2 million contract for 2011, those sorts of little risks might pay off. However, Francoeur’s subsequent two-year, $5 million contract shows just what sort of chance not to take on these sorts of players, no matter how much nebulous “upside” with no basis in past performance one imagines.

But hey, maybe you see something I don’t. Why not enter your 2013 FAN Projections for Delmon and Frenchy?

Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

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10 years ago

It takes some cojones to write a pro Delmon Young article on FG…