- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Rangers infielder Michael Young is a big believer in hard work, team chemistry and the sanctity of baseball fundamentals. He's an advocate of all those quaint concepts that ball people hold dear and cynical bloggers find so hilarious.
From personal experience, Young is also convinced that one man's truth can easily qualify as fiction in the eye of a different beholder.
For the past few years, Young has developed a reputation as a solid fielder even as the modern defensive metrics derided his contribution. In 2008, American League managers and coaches voted Young a Gold Glove, while the plus-minus system of the "Fielding Bible" rated him the 27th-best shortstop in the majors.
At least Young was in good company: Derek Jeter ranked 31st under the same system in 2008.
"When somebody sits there and says Derek Jeter is a bad shortstop, it's comical," Young said. "Derek brings so many things to the game that people don't see or understand. He's an unbelievable player, a first-ballot Hall of Famer and an incredible shortstop. It's laughable to say he's a bad shortstop.
"To sit and quantify defense, that's a difficult thing to do. What I like about shortstop is the fact that there are so many responsibilities other than the obvious, tangible things. I enjoy the parts of the position that you can't see in box scores. You can have such a massive impact on a game even when you're not getting ground balls hit at you."
This is not just a public screed from a player who's bitter about being displaced. Young delivered a similar, solemn message to his own front office this offseason.
For the past five years, since Alex Rodriguez left for New York, Young has been the face of the Texas franchise and the conscience of the clubhouse. He's the guy who tells the young players that they need to be accountable, and sets the tone for Josh Hamilton and Milton Bradley to feel comfortable despite their career baggage.
I don't expect [moving to third base] to be a difficult transition. If you can play short at a high level, you can play anywhere.
”-- Michael Young
He's also appeared in five straight All-Star Games and ranks second to Seattle's Ichiro Suzuki with 1,242 hits since the start of the 2003 season.
Young's all-around portfolio convinced the Rangers to sign him to a five-year, $80 million extension in March 2007. But the partnership is looking a bit frayed these days.
Young's offseason took a strange twist in December when Texas general manager Jon Daniels and manager Ron Washington told him they wanted him to shift from shortstop to third base in 2009. It was less a reflection on Young's performance, the Rangers said, than a desire to find a place for Elvis Andrus, a 20-year-old prospect acquired from Atlanta in the Mark Teixeira trade in July 2007.
Young's objections were based as much on the team's approach as the message itself. Upset over what he perceived as an ultimatum, he vented publicly and even asked the Rangers to explore trade possibilities.
After some welcome intervention on the part of Rangers president Nolan Ryan, Young backed off his trade request in mid-January. He took the path of least resistance and moved 40 feet to the right. But it would be sugarcoating things to say all is forgotten. Young was admittedly "angry" over the way things unfolded, but he decided to embrace the move to third as a challenge and an opportunity.
"To this day, I don't think that there's 100 percent agreement on a lot of things," Young said. "But my personal feelings shouldn't be the issue here. I have 24 other guys that I'm responsible to."
Daniels, who took his lumps for backing the team's most respected player into a corner, has since revisited the front office's approach and wondered if things could have been handled differently.
Would Young have been more receptive if the Rangers had given him a year's notice to warm up to the idea? Perhaps. But Daniels relied heavily on the advice of the organization's scouts, and he's convinced there was only so much the club could do to make the message palatable to Young.
"It was portrayed as if we really wanted to shove it down Michael's throat," Daniels said. "Had that been the intent, we would have just come out and announced it. If there's one thing I regret, it's the way this played out publicly. You never want to embarrass anybody."
Washington, in hindsight, expected Young to oppose the idea vehemently.
"If he didn't feel that way, where are the competitive juices?" Washington said.
They're certainly flowing here in Surprise, where Young is intent on making himself the best third baseman he can be. He's solicited advice from teammate Hank Blalock and his old double-play partner, A-Rod, and been receptive to input from Texas infield coach Dave Anderson and Washington, who helped mold Eric Chavez into a Gold Glove third baseman in Oakland.
Young's defensive critics concede that he was adept at turning the double play at shortstop. But statistician and author John Dewan, the inventor of the plus-minus system, observed that Young played too far in the hole to take advantage of a strong throwing arm, and allowed too many ground balls up the middle to go for hits.
That's not an issue at third, where Young's quick feet and soft hands should make for a smooth transition. He can't see the catcher's signs from third, so he'll have to rely more on instinct than the powers of observation. But when you've fielded hundreds of slow rollers at shortstop, what's the big deal about approaching the ball from a slightly different angle and throwing across your body?
"I don't expect it to be a difficult transition," Young said. "If you can play short at a high level, you can play anywhere."
Young subscribes to the notion that he's his own best coach and that experience is the best teacher. In his first Cactus League game at third base Wednesday, he made a sweet back-handed stop on Kansas City's Billy Butler only to rush his throw and bounce it to first baseman Chris Davis. Next time, he'll make sure to set his feet and be in less of a hurry.
It's those little intangibles that Young will miss the most. At shortstop, he was the guy entrusted with determining the coverage on double plays and hit-and-runs. It was also his job to send a signal and alert the third baseman to be ready when the pitcher was throwing an off-speed pitch to a right-handed batter.
Now those responsibilities fall to Andrus, one of the crown jewels of a stacked Texas farm system. Andrus has appeared in a mere 407 minor league games, but his gifts are readily apparent. And just in case his ascent to the majors is a rush job, the Rangers signed fellow Venezuelan Omar Vizquel as a mentor and security blanket.
Young doesn't want his clash with Texas management to make life difficult for Andrus, so he pulled the rookie aside early in camp and put his mind at ease.
"At some point a player and team are going to butt heads," Young said. "It happened to me, but it had nothing to do with Elvis. He's a good kid with a good head on his shoulders, and he shouldn't have to worry about anything other than playing shortstop and helping the team."
Beneath the searing heat of a desert sun, Young's winter's drama has given way to the drudgery of self-improvement. The Rangers have the usual array of pitching issues, so Young's position shift ranks somewhere between umpteenth and nonexistent on their list of Cactus League concerns.
One thing is for sure: They know he's not going to sit around and sulk.
"The way I look at it, he's been here for eight years, and he's going to be here for at least another five," Daniels said. "When you have a couple of rough weeks in a 15-year relationship, I think you're doing pretty well."
Michael Young's initial reaction to the Rangers' decision to move him to third base was anger. But now he's on board with the position change.