Promising careers at a crossroads
Two Youngs, B.J. Upton are among younger players at critical turning points
This week's edition of Starting 9 focuses on major leaguers at a career crossroads. We're looking primarily at young players who've been top prospects and shown flashes of promise, but haven't been able to sustain their success for a variety of reasons.
Will they figure it out or continue to tease clubs with their potential? Next year could go a long way toward providing the answer.
It's not surprising that the players in this group have hit speed bumps. Unless your name is Albert Pujols, life in the big leagues is a series of setbacks, challenges and adjustments.
"An emerging theme in baseball is that most teams are giving young players chances," said Arizona general manager Josh Byrnes. "If you look at the top 25 in the game in OPS this year as opposed to five years ago, the age difference is dramatic. But there's probably a little more volatility in how the young players gravitate from one year to the next."
We checked, and Byrnes is correct: In 2004, only five of Major League Baseball's top 25 players in OPS were age 26 and younger. This year, 11 of the top 25 fit that description. And the trend toward youth is just as noticeable among pitchers.
A reliance on younger players means more peaks and valleys. Most of these guys have seen the valley. Will they work their way back toward the peak in 2010?
Delmon Young, Twins (8 HRs, 45 RBIs, .677 OPS)Young is closing in on his 500th career hit, and he just turned 24 this month. To put that in perspective, he's three months younger than Chris Coghlan, Florida's left fielder and a prime Rookie of the Year candidate.
But service time doesn't necessarily equate to progress, and Young keeps heading in the wrong direction. His painful lack of plate discipline is evidenced by 11 walks and 84 strikeouts this season. He swings at too many bad pitches early in the count, and he has yet to find a way to consistently pull the inside pitch with authority.
"He looks loose and free in batting practice, but he has a more muscled approach and swing during games," said a scout. "It's weird. He looked like he was going to be one of those leveraged big guys -- like a Jermaine Dye type of hitter. But you just don't see the bat speed."
Tampa Bay rushed Young to the majors at 20, and he's been learning to hit at the highest level, which is always a challenge. Since Young signed a major league contract after he was drafted and is out of options, the Twins don't have the luxury of sending him to Triple-A for a remedial course in plate discipline.
"Ideally, you'd love to send a guy like that to the minors, let him work on some things, make adjustments and then come back up," said an American League assistant GM. "Torii Hunter was up and down a few times before he really clicked. It takes time."
As disappointing as Young has been, the Twins have no plans to non-tender him in December. They'd rather pay him $2 million-plus than risk cutting him loose and watching him blossom somewhere else.
B.J. Upton, Rays (.233, 10 HRs in 520 at-bats)We'll cut Upton some slack because of injuries. He underwent left shoulder surgery last winter, and he says he never had an opportunity to develop strength in the shoulder. He's also been bothered by an ankle problem since early September, and the injury has hindered him defensively.
But that's no excuse for Upton's bad body language, inconsistent approach to running out ground balls, and seeming indifference at times.
"When he strikes out, it's like he's on major league rehab in extended camp," said an AL scout. "It doesn't seem to bother him. They've got a real issue there. They're probably not going to be able to trade him and get close to equal value, and that attitude sure isn't going to help him become a better player."
Upton complained when manager Joe Maddon dropped him from leadoff to ninth in the order, and recently told Rays beat writer Marc Topkin that he'd like to "flush this season down the toilet." After hitting 24 homers in 2007, he has 19 combined the past two seasons. His on-base percentage took an enormous dip this season, from .383 to .303.
"He's not a bad kid at all," said a front office man who knows Upton. "He's not lazy, and he really cares. But sometimes he gets embarrassed, and I think that's when he lopes after a ball or doesn't run one out. He really makes you scratch your head."
Francisco Liriano, Twins (5-12, 5.75 ERA)Let's flash back to the summer of 2006, when Liriano was toying with American League lineups and averaging 10.71 strikeouts for every nine innings. Ozzie Guillen called him the best pitcher in the league, and Frank Thomas described his stuff as "unbelievable."
Liriano blew out his elbow, needed Tommy John surgery and returned to post a 6-4 record with a 3.91 ERA in the second half of 2008, but this year he's regressed. He's allowed 20 homers in 133 innings, and his control tends to wander -- particularly on the road. He also has trouble minimizing the damage when things get out of whack.
"He could get away with having so-so command when he threw 97 [mph]," said an AL assistant GM. "But when he's pitching at 91 or 92, it's not the same thing."
Liriano is pitching out of the bullpen this month, and not very effectively. He just turned 26, so it's too soon to give up on him. But he'll need to adapt and show a little resourcefulness if he wants to reclaim a spot at the front of the Twins' rotation.
Jeremy Hermida, Marlins (.259, 13 HRs)Five years ago, Hermida and Jeff Francoeur ranked 1 and 1(a) on the Atlanta-based list of hot outfield prospects.
"Some scouts called Hermida the best high school hitter since Eric Chavez," Baseball America wrote in 2004. "Others saw [him as] a young Andy Van Slyke or Paul O'Neill. Whatever comparison you prefer, there's no denying his polished hitting approach and advanced maturity."
Four years into Hermida's career, his top comparables on Baseball-Reference.com are Jody Gerut, Ryan Church, Wes Chamberlain, Armando Rios and Benny Agbayani. And scouts routinely refer to him as a "low energy" player.
The same sabermetric crowd that vilifies Francoeur gives Hermida a pass because he plays in anonymity in Florida and draws some walks. But Hermida has arguably been just as big a disappointment: Over the past two seasons he has a slugging percentage of .400 -- a tick below Brandon Moss, Mark Kotsay, Maicer Izturis and Omar Infante. The left-handed hitting Hermida is a career .237 hitter against lefties.
With four years of service time, Hermida is starting to get pricey, so the Marlins might try to package him with Dan Uggla this winter and get something in return. It won't hurt Hermida to escape Land Shark Stadium, where he has a .393 career slugging percentage. Hermida has slugged .615 in 39 at-bats at Wrigley Field, so maybe the Cubs can find a place for him.
Chris Young, Diamondbacks (.209 BA, .309 OBP)Young was hitting .194 when the Diamondbacks sent him to Triple-A Reno for a refresher course in August. He's been better since his return, with six homers and a .594 slugging percentage this month.
Young is always prone to hitting the ball in the air -- when he's not striking out. This year his fly-ball rate spiked noticeably, and too many of those airborne balls were popups. He worked with hitting coach Jack Howell to change his hand positioning and better drive through the ball, but progress has been fleeting.
The Diamondbacks briefly considered asking Young to play winter ball, but he's finished strongly enough to make them ditch that option. Now management just wants Young to relax and have fun, no easy proposition since he signed a five-year, $28 million contract extension in April 2008.
"He's a steady guy, but not an indifferent guy, and maybe if he's getting some added scrutiny because of the contract, he feels it," said GM Josh Byrnes.
In a perfect world, Young is a budding Mike Cameron. He plays an exceptional defensive center field, and he has 30-homer power. But after four years and almost 1,700 big league at-bats, Young has a career on-base percentage of .306 (compared to Cameron's .341). That's just not going to cut it.
Jeff Francoeur, Mets (.275, 12 HRs, 69 RBIs)In a 6-5 loss to Arizona on Aug. 3, Francoeur took an 0-fer against Dan Haren and Jon Rauch. He whiffed on three pitches, and then grounded out, popped out and grounded out -- all on the first pitch.
Six pitches. One strikeout. Four outs. For his numerous detractors, that's the quintessential Jeff Francoeur box score line.
It always comes back to plate discipline for Francoeur, who has yet to get the hang of things despite his best efforts. After spending the winter working with renowned hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo, Francoeur was hoping to draw 50-60 walks this year. He currently has 22 in 594 plate appearances.
Nevertheless, Francoeur has raised his play a notch since going to New York from Atlanta in the Ryan Church trade. He has a .306/.333/.476 line in 66 games as a Met. And he always plays hard -- no small thing for manager Jerry Manuel's beleaguered club.
He also seems to be enjoying himself a whole lot more these days.
"I thought he'd be a change-of-venue guy who would play better," said an NL scout. "It's strange to think New York is better for him than Atlanta. But the pressure was so great and he was under so much scrutiny in his hometown, it was a tough place for him to play."
For what it's worth, Francoeur wouldn't be the first player to find unexpected salvation in New York. Paul O'Neill was a temper-prone .259 hitter in Cincinnati -- just down the road from his native Columbus -- who flourished after escaping the Lou Piniella regime for the Bronx.
So what, precisely, is Francoeur? Under optimal circumstances, he's an 18-20 homer guy who might hit .280 with an OBP of .310. Not great, but he still has a chance to be what one scout called a "useable piece." That's more than he was in Atlanta.
Alex Rios, White Sox (.242 BA, 16 HRs, .389 SLG)The White Sox acquired Rios and the $60 million-plus left on his contract via a waiver claim in August. Here's hoping that Chicago general manager Kenny Williams saved the receipt.
While Milton Bradley mercifully hogs the negative press in Chicago, Rios is hitting .158 with a .246 slugging percentage since his arrival from Toronto. Those aren't misprints.
"What have I seen from Rios? A lot of outs," Chicago manager Guillen told reporters last week.
Perhaps, as Guillen suggests, Rios is trying too hard to impress everyone in his new home. Rios is a tall guy (6-foot-5) with a high-maintenance swing, a penchant for streakiness and a detached on-field demeanor that raises questions about his intensity level. Toronto fans booed him routinely at the end, and Chicago fans are quickly warming to the routine.
Rios can get away with a little less production if he's playing center field rather than a corner spot. The White Sox would love to see him rediscover his form from 2006, when he slugged .516 and made the first of two All-Star teams. The way Rios has played this season, that sure seems like a long time ago.
Erik Bedard, Mariners (5-3, 2.82 ERA in 15 starts)Baseball executives who were dazzled by Bedard's stuff and envisioned him as a staff ace-in-waiting now view him with more skepticism. He's 30 years old, and he's never pitched 200 innings. Over the past two seasons, he's logged 164 innings in 30 starts.
He also helped get Bill Bavasi fired as GM in Seattle, which helps explain why Bavasi reacted so bluntly at his farewell press conference when asked about Bedard's knack for five-inning appearances.
"You gotta ask him," Bavasi told reporters. "He'll have a stupid answer for you, you can count on it. He'll have some dumb-ass answer."
Since 2005, Bedard has been bothered by injuries to his knee, oblique, hip, hamstring, glute and shoulder. It's hard to blame a guy for being fragile, but Bedard doesn't help matters with his odd, standoffish personality.
Still, it's a weak free-agent crop this winter, and a bunch of teams will take a look at Bedard as a short-term, high upside bet. The winning club will cross its fingers and pray.
"The tools and what your eyes see tell you this guy should be better," said an American League executive. "But the makeup seems to hold him back from fulfilling that promise."
J.J. Hardy, Brewers (.228, 11 HRs)
We cheated on our ninth spot and took a double-play combination.
Rickie Weeks, Brewers (.272, 9 HRs in 37 games)
With Alcides Escobar coming fast, the expectation now is that general manager Doug Melvin will shop Hardy this winter.
"He should have real value," an AL assistant GM said of Hardy. "He's an average-to-above-average defensive player, he's demonstrated the ability to hit with some pop, and that's such a positional need for so many clubs."
Weeks got off to a fast start this season before going down with wrist surgery in May. He's such a bat-speed guy, you have to wonder if all those hand and wrist injuries will eventually take a toll. Weeks' defensive shortcomings at second base also make him a candidate to move to the outfield one of these years.
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