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November 29, 2007

Prospectus Challenge

Who Won Yesterday's Trade?

by Kevin Goldstein and Joe Sheehan

Speaking for the Rays, Joe Sheehan:

In their first aggressive attempt to streamline their collection of talent, the Tampa Bay Rays pulled off a stunner yesterday, dealing away 2003's number one overall draft pick, Delmon Young, and two other players to the Minnesota Twins for Matt Garza, Jason Bartlett, and a pitching prospect.

It's not easy to trade away a player who was, as recently as 2006, the top prospect in the game. In 2007, Young hit .288/.316/.408 as a 21-year-old, and is still regarded as an enormous talent. Delmon Young may not have been cheated by the Rookie of the Year voting-if anything, he was overrated by it-but he's accomplished enough at a young age to be taken seriously as a potential star.

His game, however, has persistent flaws that limit his value. Despite his youth, Young is not particularly fast. He has one career triple, is 12-for-17 stealing bases, and has hit into 23 double plays, all in 192 career big league games. He is not a good defensive player. While playing in a home park that encourages offense, he has a career ISO of .116, which even for his age is unimpressive. Most notably, he has wretched plate discipline: 151 strikeouts and 25 unintentional walks in 812 career PA. Of the 144 players with 300 plate appearances last year, Young was 144th with 3.51 pitches seen per PA. He's been a hacker his entire career, and he has a long way to go before he can be a productive hitter.

More important to the Rays, Young's talents are ones they have in abundance. For years, the Rays have produced hitters, from Jonny Gomes and Rocco Baldelli on the low end to Carl Crawford and B.J. Upton at the high end. Even their most successful plays in the free-talent pool have been bats, such as '07 monster Carlos Pena. They've been much less successful with pitchers, and while Jamie Shields was a success last season, and they're optimistic about prospects such as Wade Davis, Jacob McGee, and David Price, the major league rotation needed immediate improvement behind Shields and Scott Kazmir. Garza, who moved from "pitching prospect" to "pitcher" last season, is a low-cost upgrade who will make the team three to four games better in 2008.

The front of the trade can be debated because opinions will differ on what Young is and will be. The back end cannot be argued. The Devil Rays get a starting shortstop in Bartlett, a league-average player who upgrades their defense over the players they've had at short since trading away Julio Lugo. They deal Brendan Harris, waiver bait a year ago and essentially a utility infielder, at the peak of his value. They also took advantage of the Twins' desperation for a center fielder, dealing non-prospect Jason Pridie after his career year, and getting back relief sensation Eduardo Morlan.

With this deal, the Rays have shifted from collecting talent to forming it into a baseball team, and this trade shows how seriously they take the process. Trading a player with the perceived value of Young is never easy, but with it they've leveraged a gap between that perceived value and what he actually is to make their team better. This may not a bad trade for the Twins-who have a similar talent-alignment problem, with more pitchers than hitters, and who have been far too passive about addressing it-but it is a very good one for the Rays.

---

And now, speaking for the Twins, Kevin Goldstein:

A few years back, a really smart person in the game, a guy all of you respect quite a bit, told me his very basic equation for judging a deal. Whoever got the best player, won the deal. In this deal, Delmon Young was the best player, and therefore, the Twins won.

I can't argue with any of the numbers Joe rolled out here. Delmon Young wasn't very good this year. Yes, his plate discipline is wretched, yes, he wasn't very good defensively, and yes, the power was less than expected. You'll get no argument from me in any of these areas.

Instead, the argument I will throw out there is that Delmon Young remains a supremely talented player. I wish I had a better explanation for where the power went, but this is still the same guy who hit 20 home runs in 330 at-bats at Double-A as a 19-year-old. This is still the same guy who hit .318 in the minors. This is still the player who was the number one overall pick in 2003. This is a player who still has a tremendous amount of work to do on his game, yet he was able to hit .288 in the majors last year.

Early in his career, Young drew a lot of comparisons to Albert Belle for his hitting ability and style; later the comparisons reared an uglier head due to his brutish behavior. I'm not sure that comp is especially accurate, at least on a pure baseball level. The more name I'd use in comparing Young might instead be Vladimir Guerrero. Like Young, Guerrero is six-foot-three, though Vlad has the lankier build. Both have tremendous plate coverage, which limits their ability to draw a ton of walks. Like Young, Guerrero dominated at the upper levels of the minors as a very young player, and was a starting big leaguer by 21. In his rookie year, Guerrero hit for average (.302), but didn't show a ton of secondary skills, smacking 11 home runs in 325 at-bats while drawing only 17 unintentional walks. The next year, he was the Vladimir Guerrero we now know and love.

I'm not saying that Young will hit .324/.371/.589 in 2008 the way Vladi did in his first full season, but I've already made a friendly wager (one burrito) with a team official that Young will be an above-average right fielder next year, as measured by OPS. I still would have made the bet had it been top 12 instead of merely "above-average," and maybe even top 10. Anybody who has written off Delmon Young as a future superstar has done so far too soon.

Beyond Delmon, Joe makes excellent point after excellent point concerning how the deal affects Tampa Bay; this is hardly a one-sided deal. The Rays now have a shortstop, and opening a slot in the outfield allows them to end the musical chairs involving B.J. Upton's position on the diamond, and permanently ensconces him in the outfield, while also allowing them to move Akinori Iwamura to second base (where he'll be just fine, and fits better offensively) to open up third base for future star Evan Longoria. That doesn't even bring me to Garza, who's an immediate number three starter with the possibility of more down the road. It doesn't bring me to Morlan, for whom the Rays should be thankful that there were some physical issues with Juan Rincon. Rincon is a solid big league reliever, but if you are a young, developing team, Morlan is more valuable because he offers genuine late-inning potential.

One could easily argue that this is a win-win for both teams, but I have a feeling that when all is said and done, people in Tampa/St. Pete will be looking at the stat sheets over the next few years, and when they see what Young is doing with the Twins, they'll wince, even if it's just a little.

Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here
Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

Related Content:  Delmon Young,  The Who

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