A Closer Look at Chris Young

Chris Young is about to become a household name. I’m not projecting great things for the Padres pitcher. I’m talking about the 23-year-old Diamondbacks center fielder.

I volunteered to rank the top 30 prospects in baseball for this year’s THT Annual. The list was guided by performance-based projections of the likelihood of each player becoming a “star” or “regular” at his position by age 25. Needless to say, some unusual results popped up. There are guys high up on this list who don’t even rank among an organization’s top five in the oft-repeated Baseball America lists. I think the method is reasonable and, at the very least, will inspire some interesting debates about the value of certain baseball prospects. That’s mostly what these lists are good for, anyway.

Over the next few weeks, I would like to elaborate on some of the players who are probably rated much higher on my list than they will be on other top prospect lists. And today I’m going to start with Chris Young.

History

Young shattered his forearm when he got tangled up with another outfielder chasing for a shallow fly ball in the Texas state semifinals game just days before the 2001 draft. As a result, the Chicago White Sox were able to pick him up in the 16th round of the draft. Young needed seven months to recover from his arm injury, but the White Sox watched him emerge as a top outfield prospect over the next few years.

After a couple years of rookie ball, Chris Young slugged 60 extra-base hits, including 24 home runs, for the Single-A Kannapolis Intimidators of the South Atlantic League. Baseball America’s 2004 review of the South Atlantic League’s top prospects noted Young’s impressive power and speed while acknowledging, “The question is whether his propensity for swinging and missing will keep him from reaching (his high ceiling).” Kannapolis manager Chris Cron compared Young to Mike Cameron that year. In a May 2004 interview with the Charlotte Observer, Cron described Young as a future leadoff hitter who needed to focus on getting on base to use his speed:

”He hits a couple of home runs, and he may want to do that again. Sometimes that gets him into trouble right now. That kind of works against him, in a sense.”

Young made the leap to the Double-A Southern League in 2005 and hit 26 home runs, despite playing his home games in a pitcher-friendly park. In August, White Sox general manager Kenny Williams proclaimed, “I don’t know that we have anyone in the organization where the ball comes off the bat harder than Chris Young.” Young also struck out 129 times that year. His manager, Razor Shines, explained that older pitchers were taking advantage of Young early in the 2005 season. The 21-year-old was “swinging at low curveballs, high fastballs, and pitches off the plate,” but made the necessary adjustments to improve his contact later in the season. Young finished the season with a .377 OBP and 70 extra-base hits. He continued to earn positive reviews for his smooth play in center field and continued to draw comparisons to Cameron and Eric Davis.

The White Sox were relatively deep in outfield prospects after the 2005 season. Young played with Brian Anderson, Ryan Sweeney, and Jerry Owens during his minor league career, and all four outfielders were close to being ready for the big leagues. When the White Sox looked to trade for Javier Vazquez, the Diamondbacks asked for Young.

Young’s tenure with the Diamondbacks got off to a rough start. He suffered a hand injury while preparing for Spring Training and struggled with a sore rib cage shortly after getting on the field in late April. While the 22-year-old outfielder continued to impress onlookers with his power at the plate, speed on the basepaths, and nearly flawless play in center field, Young also made contact more consistently than ever.

Here are Young’s strikeout rates during the past three seasons:

Year Level  K/PA
2004    A    26%
2005   AA    23%
2006  AAA    15%
2006  MLB    15%

The hard work and mid-season adjustments that Razor Shines alluded to in 2005 seemed to carry over to Young’s play in 2006. While a 15% strikeout rate isn’t particularly good, it’s a far cry from the kind of high strikeout rates that left most of us to wonder whether or not Young would ever be able to hit enough in the big leagues just a year or two ago.

Projection

Young’s improved contact rate suggests he could post a respectable batting average in the major leagues. His power, patience, and potential to be an impact baserunner remain the strongest parts of his game. My projection system suggests this combination of skills will serve him well in the coming years:

          Year  Level   AVG   OBP   SLG  SB
          2006    AAA  .276  .363  .532  17
          2006    MLB  .243  .308  .386   2
Projected 2007    MLB  .258  .338  .504  21
Projected 2008    MLB  .266  .344  .513  21

Even with a below-average projected batting average, the 23-year-old Young could be a significant asset in center field. Consider how close his projected performance is to some of baseball’s best full-time center fielders of the 2006 season:

                   AVG   OBP   SLG
Carlos Beltran    .275  .388  .594
Grady Sizemore    .290  .375  .533
Vernon Wells      .303  .357  .533
Andruw Jones      .262  .363  .531
Gary Matthews Jr. .313  .371  .495
Summary

I think a reasonable case can be made that Chris Young is the most valuable prospect in baseball. While widely-known prospects such as Alex Gordon or Delmon Young are certainly capable of putting up more impressive all-around offensive numbers, Chris is a relatively safer bet to produce above-average numbers at the plate and contribute excellent defense at a premium position on the baseball diamond as soon as next year. And he’s still only 23 years old.

I won’t argue that Chris Young is really in the same class as the game’s elite center fielders, but he certainly seems close and his upside is high. This is an offseason where organizations are investing tens of millions of dollars on five-year deals for players like Juan Pierre and Gary Matthews Jr.. There’s a good chance Chris Young outperforms both of those guys in 2007 for about one-twentieth of the salary.

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