Young outlived his usefulness in Texas
On Saturday, an era of Texas baseball history ended, as the Rangers dealt Michael Young to the Phillies for two young pitchers. Young spent more than a decade bouncing around the Rangers’ infield to accommodate the addition of other players in their quest to build a championship team, setting franchise records for games played and hits along the way while earning All-Star honors seven times. By the end of his tenure, however, he was a polarizing figure, a favorite of manager Ron Washington who played more often that his talents warranted. Heading into his age 36 season in 2013, he’s not a very good fit for a full-time job, particularly at third base, where the Phillies plan to play him.
Young is coming off the worst season of his career, one in which he hit .277/.312/.370 with eight homers in 651 plate appearances. Adjusting for the Rangers’ hitter-friendly ballpark, that’s a .239 True Average, 21 points lower than the defined league average, and even further below the AL averages at designated hitter (.273) and first base (.278), the two positions where he accumulated nearly three-quarters of his playing time.
Defensively, multiple metrics view his work at all four positions in 2012 as below-average, to the point where his value was below replacement level: −1.5 WARP according to Baseball Prospectus, −2.4 WAR according to Baseball-Reference. Had Washington sat him a bit more often rather than starting him 154 times, the team likely would have won the AL West instead of winding up in second place, one game out, and in the wild-card game, which the Rangers lost to the Orioles.
Even so, Young is only one season removed from a banner 2011 campaign in which he batted .338/.380/.474 with 11 homers and an AL-best 213 hits, for a .292 True Average, though just 2.4 WARP due to his position and defense. Philadelphia received very little in the way of production from starting third baseman Placido Polanco (.257/.302/.327) in 2012, who missed eight weeks due to lower back inflammation; his absence was covered primarily by Kevin Frandsen (who hit a searing .335/.377/.450 in 205 PA in that role) and secondarily by Ty Wigginton and Mike Fontenot, who struggled. In all, the team’s .272/.315/.357 mark at the position is a low bar to clear to represent an offensive upgrade, though that group graded out essentially as average according to DRS, UZR and Total Zone.
The proverbial danger of a player who lets in as many runs with his glove as he supplies with his bat is no small concern given that Young’s defense at the hot corner has drawn comparison to a matador waving at balls as they go by. Historically, his work at third base — his primary position in 2009-2010, and a secondary one since — has been subpar; prorated to 150 games, he has been nine runs below average according to Ultimate Zone Rating, 14 runs below according to Fielding Runs Above Average and 15 runs below according to Defensive Runs Saved.
Though he was drafted in the fifth round out of UC-Santa Barbara by the Blue Jays in 1997, Young has never played an inning for any major league team beside the Rangers, who acquired him in a July 2000 heist that sent Esteban Loaiza to Toronto. After appearing in two games that year, he became the team’s regular second baseman in late May 2001, and served primarily in that capacity through 2003. The February 2004 trade of Alex Rodriguez to the Yankees for Alfonso Soriano and Joaquin Arias led to Young shifting over to shortstop to fit Soriano in at second. When rookie Elvis Andrus arrived in 2009, Young was bumped over to third, and the signing of free agent Adrian Beltre in January 2011 turned him into a DH/utilityman. Young was initially reluctant to move off of third base, requesting a trade, saying, “I want to be traded because I have been manipulated and misled in this process and I’m not going to take it anymore.”
Despite Young’s discomfort with the multiple moves, they coincided with the Rangers’ evolution into a force in the American League. While the team’s 87 wins in 2009 weren’t enough for a playoff berth, they marked the team’s first winning season since 2004, and just the second of his career. In 2010 and 2011, the Rangers won back-to-back AL West titles and AL pennants — their first of the latter in franchise history — though they lost in the World Series both times.
In 2012, Texas squandered a five-game division lead over the final 10 games, wound up in the new wild-card play-in and lost. Young’s performances in the postseason have played their part in the Rangers coming up short; in 147 PA, he has hit .248/.272/.383, numbers well below his regular season line of .301/.347/.444.
As superficially impressive as that career line is, it’s propped up considerably by Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, where Young has hit .320/.368/.479, with a .351 batting average on balls in play and 101 of his 177 home runs. Elsewhere, he has hit just .283/.326/.410, with a .319 BABIP, numbers that highlight his lack of plate discipline (a 5.6 percent unintentional walk rate) and middling power.
Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park is a more neutral hitting environment than Arlington, one that has slightly worked against righthanded hitters in terms of both batting average and power in recent years. According to The Bill James Handbook 2013, Citizens has reduced righties’ batting average by around three percent from 2010-2012, and their homer production by around five percent, while Arlington propped them up by seven percent and 19 percent, respectively. In other words, Young’s numbers may well take another hit with the move.
Young is in the final year of a five-year, $80 million deal he signed in March 2007, one that will pay him $16 million in 2013. He needed to waive his 10-and-5 rights in order to approve the deal, and gained $1.2 million in benefits by doing so, apparently via the cancellation of his annual salary deferral. The Rangers will pay around $10 million of his salary, and for their trouble, they receive a pair of young right-handed relievers.
Josh Lindblom, 25, is a 2008 second-round pick by the Dodgers who was acquired in the Shane Victorino trade on July 31. In 2012, his first full major league season, he threw 71 innings with a 3.55 ERA and 8.9 strikeouts per nine, though his walk and homer rates (4.4 and 1.6 per nine, respectively) were perilously high. Lisalberto Bonilla is a 22-year-old Dominican who put up a 1.55 ERA and struck out 12.4 per nine in 46 1/3 innings as a reliever for the Phillies’ High-A and Double-A affiliates. Selected to play in the Futures Game in Kansas City, he injured his right thumb in a horseplay incident prior to the game and missed the remainder of the season. Though his fastball is “only” low-to-mid-90s, his best pitch is a plus-changeup, and his slider could develop into a swing-and-miss offering.
Those players will have a long way to go to match Young’s contributions to the Texas organization. Young holds a slew of Ranger franchise records including those for hits (2,230, surpassing Ivan Rodriguez in 2010), games (1,823), total bases (3,286) and multi-hit games (651). Even so, he outlived his usefulness in Texas, and he’ll need a strong rebound to overcome both age and a less-friendly hitting environment to be worth even the fraction of his salary that the Phillies are paying.