Friday, September 6, 2013

Getting a Delmon 2.0

For the last years of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Delmon Young represented the future. He was Baseball America’s #3 Top Prospect in 2003, 2004, and 2006, and the number one prospect in Minor League Baseball in 2005. He was big, he was powerful, and there was no doubt he was going to be a star.

The year Delmon Young made his Major League debut was also the first year Joe Maddon helmed the Devil Rays and Andrew Friedman manned the seat of General Manager (it was also my first year in the Tampa Bay area, but that’s a side note). We didn’t know much about Maddon, Friedman, and their processes then, but we knew the organization had to be better. They couldn’t get much worse.

After a year of watching Maddon and Friedman sort out the pieces, a funny thing happened. The “Devil” was jettisoned and with it the green uniforms, the losing, and Delmon Young. Our prized prospect was gone, traded to the Twins for their 2006 number one prospect, right-hander Matt Garza. Sure, Jason Bartlett and Brandon Harris were also in that trade, but it was primarily Delmon for Garza.

Delmon for Garza was Friedman’s 20th trade since the end of 2005 and his first “Big Trade”, unless you count Mark Hendrickson for Dioner Navarro or Aubrey Huff for a non-descript Astros prospect named Ben Zobrist. It was also a very interesting trade at the time. Twins blogger Aaron Gleeman wrote “The package that the Twins received in return for Garza, Morlan, and Bartlett essentially means that Young must become a superstar for the trade to be successful.” DRaysBay writer David Bloom wrote “I think this trade will help the Rays more than it will hurt them with the loss of Delmon. With Jeff Niemann, Wade Davis and Jake McGee on the not too far horizon, the Rays might be defined by their starting pitching.

As we know now, Delmon for Garza worked out better than expected as the Rays made the World Series, Garza won the 2008 ALCS MVP, threw a no-hitter, and after 2010 was traded for Chris Archer, Sam Fuld, and others. For the statistically minded, the players the Rays received have been worth 23 Wins Above Replacement according to Baseball (Garza: 8.5 WAR, Fuld: 2.3, Bartlett: 10.5 Archer: 2.1, Guyer 0.1). Meanwhile, Delmon Young has been below the level of a replacement player since leaving Tampa Bay, accumulating -0.6 Wins Above Replacement.

(Here you ask “So what is a Replacement Player?”. Although stat people even argue about the correct measurement, put bluntly, it is way below what a former number one Minor League prospect should achieve.)

While no one expected Delmon to wither away as he has, Delmon for Garza was the trade that put the Rays on the map as a team willing to make moves to get players they need. Players who fit the “Rays Way”.

So it came as little surprise five and half years later when the Rays took a flyer on a recently-released corner outfielder who hit well against left-handed pitching, was cost-effective (read: free!), has some pop, and knows American League pitching.

A player named Delmon Young.

Of course, the Delmon Young of today is not the Delmon Young of 2003 to 2007. Delmon is as far removed from his number one prospect days as the Rays are from their Devil Rays days. Delmon is a back-up now, a Designated Hitter or spot fourth outfielder who should be pulled for defensive purposes as soon as possible. What happens in the future will be interesting, but for now on this team, that’s his role.

Growing up a Mets fan, the Delmon Young reunion reminds me of the Mets reacquisition of Lee Mazzilli during the 1986 pennant run. Early in his career, Mazzilli was a star for the late ‘70s and early ‘80s Mets, the only big name the perennial 100-loss team had. Mazzilli played his first five seasons with the Mets and was an All-Star in 1979, when he hit .303, belted 15 home runs, and stole 34 bases.

On April 1, 1982, the Mets flipped Mazzilli to the Texas Rangers for pitching prospects Ron Darling and Walt Terrell. After three seasons with the Mets, Terrell was sent to Detroit for Howard Johnson, the best third baseman in Mets history not named David Wright. Darling, like Garza, became a solid number three starter and a key arm in the Mets 1986 World Series-bound rotation. Meanwhile, Mazzilli spent the 1980s bouncing from Texas to the Yankees to the Pirates, never quite the star he was in New York.

In the middle of the 1986 season, the Pirates released Mazzilli. A few weeks later, the Mets took a flyer. Like the 2007 Devil Rays, the 1981 Mets team Mazzilli left was a collection of has-beens, never-will-bes, and a few young players with legit potential. The 1986 team Mazzilli returned to was far different. The ’86 Mets had focus, leadership, stars, and a charismatic genius manager named Davey Johnson at the helm (they also had swagger to spare, but that’s a whole other story). On the ’86 Mets, there was no pressure for Mazzilli to be the Mazzilli of old. The second coming of Mazzilli needed only to play some outfield, pinch-hit, and give a spot-start to rest the regulars during the pennant race.

Nearly 30 years later, that’s all the Rays want from their Delmon 2.0.

(P.S. Bonus points if you get the post title taken from Delmon Young’s “screen name” in the once popular web comic “The Dugout”.)