Fantasy Future (cont.)
Posted: Tuesday March 13, 2007 12:11PM; Updated: Tuesday March 13, 2007 12:11PM
The younger brother of 11-year vet Dmitri Young, Delmon passed the days of his banishment by fulfilling a 52-hour community service requirement. He taught baseball to disabled children. He spoke to sick kids at the Ronald McDonald House. He played wheelchair softball. "The experiences were eye-opening," he says. "Sometimes you do take for granted the opportunities you have. Maybe I did."
At the end of last August, Young made his long-awaited major league debut. In 30 games he hit .317 with 13 extra-base hits in 131 at bats, and in the clubhouse he developed a reputation for humility and hard work. "No one beat him to the ballpark," says Friedman. "During batting practice guys are talking and joking around. He's in rightfield playing balls off the bat. He's backing up bases. Other people say, 'Oh, it's only going to happen one out of a hundred times,' but Delmon's attitude has been, 'I want to be there that one out of a hundred times.'"
Coaches think Young will develop 30-home-run power over time, but there is concern over his Guerrero-like overaggressiveness, which opposing pitchers are likely to exploit. Last year he swung at 68.7% of the pitches he saw, which, according to STATS Inc., is the highest percentage of any batter in the last decade.
Still, with Young penciled in as the team's Opening Day rightfielder, the Devil Rays are the rare club that boasts a five-tool player at each outfield position. Joining Young are two of the game's best pure athletes, Carl Crawford, 25, and Rocco Baldelli, 25. Crawford, who was recruited out of high school to quarterback the option offense for Nebraska, has improved his home run and OBP totals in each of his five seasons. Baldelli, a four-sport high school standout who led his teams to state titles in volleyball, basketball and baseball, showed signs of a breakout last season when he hit .302 with 16 home runs in 92 games.
Manager Joe Maddon will find at bats for Dukes, using him as a fourth outfielder and designated hitter. "He can play all three outfield positions," says the manager, "and I want to give our guys days off. Rocco's coming off injuries [that cost him all of '05] and Carl runs so hard on the [Tropicana Field] turf, we have to keep him fresh."
A bigger challenge for Maddon will be finding regular playing time for Upton, a 6'3", 180-pound speedster who stole 90 bases during the last two years in Durham. Upton has yet to find a position to call his own in the majors because of his struggles on defense. Maddon envisions him as a superutility player, like the Angels' Chone Figgins. One day last week he started his morning tracking fly balls in the outfield, then convened with a coach to improve his footwork at third base, then took infield practice at shortstop, where he played five flawless innings in a game against the Twins that afternoon. "We've been trying to force this guy here for years," says Maddon. "I want to let him develop at his own pace. I want to deemphasize his defense and emphasize his offense. He needs to hit."
More than Dukes or Young, Upton is feeling the pressure to live up to his hype, because the Devil Rays have more premier infield talent in the pipeline. Power-hitting third baseman Evan Longoria, the team's top pick in '06, isn't far away, and shortstop Reid Brignac, who grew two inches and added 15 pounds of muscle in the off-season, hit .326 while winning the MVP award in the high Class A California League.
Enough on how good the baby Rays could be down the road. "Now's the time to see what some of these kids can do in a full season," says Crawford. Dukes knows who's watching. "A lot of people didn't think I'd be here," he says. "It's been a long, tough road. But this is [a new] beginning."