People often ask me why I -- like many others -- have been so steadfast in my support for Jason Kubel. After all, they'd note, Kubel is a rather unathletic 26-year-old who has been wildly inconsistent throughout his big-league career thus far and hasn't come especially close to realizing the potential he showed as a hitting machine in the minor leagues. There is one word, I think, that justifies the continued faith that many show in Kubel: progress.
Kubel got better as he rose through the various levels of the Twins' farm system. His best season, by far, was his last full year in the minors, when Kubel batted .352 with 42 doubles, 22 home runs and 100 RBI between Double-A and Triple-A. He was in the major leagues as a 22-year-old, and would have stuck there if not for a knee injury suffered the following offseason that derailed his development as a player. Kubel returned in 2006 and was terrible, but he has shown steady improvement since returning from the injury. His OPS figures with the Twins since returning in '06: 605, 785, 806. The progress may not have been as fast as some would have liked (thus the widespread resentment for Kubel), but it's there. Delmon Young has followed a rather different path.
Young was a monster in the low minors, skipping rookie ball altogether and posting huge averages with impressive power numbers as a teenager in Single-A and Double-A. Yet, as he rose through the minors, Young's power numbers started to wane, and he hasn't totaled more than 13 home runs in a season or posted an especially impressive slugging percentage since 2005, his second year as a pro. What this indicates, to me, is a guy whose raw talent and physical prowess made him a man among boys in high school and in the low minors, but whose unwillingness to take coaching and adjust his approach has caused his performance to level off. With the exception of a slight improvement in his plate discipline (going from awful to bad), Young made essentially zero progress from 2007 to 2008. Twenty-three years old or not, that's troubling.
Much gets made of Young's age, as if the fact that he is only 23 years old should earn him a free pass for his sub par performance. But take a look at Young's former team, the Tampa Bay Rays, who are currently competing in the World Series. Evan Longoria, 22, has been a huge presence on that team. B.J. Upton, who was 23 for most of the season, has been a driving force for the Rays in the playoffs. Carl Crawford and Rocco Baldelli were both in the big leagues at the age of 22 and were considerably more productive than Young was this year. The fact that he's younger than most of his colleagues is a reason to cut Young some slack, but it doesn't totally excuse his lack of success nor does it guarantee that he will improve significantly over the next several years. Experience is more important than age, and Young has already accumulated 1,346 major-league at-bats, more than any of the aforementioned players had at his age -- more than Kubel has to date, in fact.
Some general managers get poked fun of extensively, but none of them are oblivious morons. The hype that has surrounded Young has been built around his status as a No. 1 overall draft pick and his domination as a teenager in the minor leagues, which led scouts to prophecize big things several years ago. It was somewhat reasonable to cling to that hype last winter, when Bill Smith gambled and sent a top young pitcher and a starting shortstop to Tampa Bay in order to bring Young to the Twins' organization in spite of those downward trending numbers. One year later, with no progress shown, it is less reasonable to do so, and it stands to reason that no GM will be willing to take a similar gamble. Like it or not, Young's value is significantly lower than it was a year ago, and for that reason it would be a mistake for the Twins to move him.
I've written a lot of negative things about Young in this post, but I'm not trying to sign his death warrant. He has the size and pedigree to develop into a good hitter, and the Twins are better off seeing that through than peddling him to another organization for a substandard return. And believe me, that's about what he'd bring back at this point. Any rumors of a Young-for-Matt Cain or Young-for-J.J. Hardy swap are completely off-base. No GM in the league is going to surrender premium talent for a former No. 1 pick who has essentially failed to show any tangible improvement over the course of his entire five-year professional career.
Through nearly 1,500 big-league at-bats, Young has shown himself to be an undisciplined hitter who mashes ground-balls at a steady rate, and a poor defender who won't provide even average value defensively at a corner outfield spot. There's not a ton of reason for extreme optimism, and those who still believe he's destined to transform into an elite slugger are stuck on scouting reports from two years ago. I sincerely doubt any general managers around the league carry that mindset anymore. Still, Young remains likely to improve to some degree, and Smith needs to follow through on his gamble and see what becomes of the player he gave up so much for just a year ago. Losing patience and ditching the experiment now simply would not benefit this team in the long run.