Delmon Young (Associated Press)
On the same day that the Tampa Bay Rays unveiled their innovative plans for a new waterfront stadium in downtown St. Petersburg, the perennial-losing franchise grabbed newspaper headlines for another reason. Making its first splash in the Free Agent trade waters on Wednesday, Tampa Bay dealt right fielder Delmon Young, the runner-up in the AL Rookie of the Year voting in 2007, utility infielder Brendan Harris and minor league outfielder Jason Pridie to the Minnesota Twins in exchange for highly-touted pitching prospect Matt Garza, shortstop Jason Bartlett and minor league pitcher Eduardo Morlan.
In an unusual flip-flop of such immensely talented, young players, the Rays acquired a legitimate potential number three pitcher in Garza, the USA Today Minor League Player of the Year in 2006, while addressing their immediate needs to upgrade defensively at shortstop. Bartlett, the Twins’ everyday shortstop for the past year-and-a-half, is a consistent hitter, much like Harris, but is coming off a down year at the plate. After providing Minnesota’s lineup with a much-needed spark in the second-half of 2006, when he hit .309 in 333 at bats, Bartlett appeared to be poised to improve upon his breakout season. Yet, the 28-year-old, a 13th-round pick of the San Diego Padres in 2001, struggled offensively in 2007, finishing with a .265 batting average, 135 hits, 20 doubles, 43 RBIs, and 75 runs scored. Normally regarded as a consistent defender, he also committed 26 errors over 138 games, registering a .960 fielding percentage. With the a huge cloud of uncertainty expected to hover over the Rays’ shortstop situation headed into Spring Training, however, Bartlett provides Tampa Bay with a clear-cut short-term answer at the position. And with Reid Brignac, the Rays' shortstop of the future, more than a year away from taking over for good, Bartlett definitely provides Tampa Bay with an upgrade at the position, considering the internal options.
After surprising many folks by making the Rays’ 25-man roster out of camp, Harris’ early success with the Rays was one of the few bright spots for Tampa Bay over the first two months of the season. Taking over for a struggling Ben Zobrist, he provided the Rays with several clutch hits during his time as the primary shortstop. Although he was a consistent offensive player for much of '07, Harris’ lack of range hurt his status with the Rays, even prompting him to move to second base after the Rays acquired Josh Wilson from the Washington Nationals. The William and Mary product hit .286 with 12 homers, 59 RBIs and 72 runs scored while finishing last season with a .343 on-base percentage and .434 slugging percentage (a .777 OPS for the mathematically-challenged readers out there.) Next season, he was expected to fulfill the Rays’ primary utility infielder role, which will now come down to a March competition between Wilson and Zobrist.
But Garza, of course, was the driving force, in the Rays’ eyes, behind this deal. After being selected by the Twins in the first round out of Fresno State in 2005, he zipped through the minor leagues, achieving tremendous success along the way. The 24-year-old was blessed with an electric fastball that complements the rest of his repertoire – curve ball, slider, change-up – effectively, when his command is on. In a remarkable season in 2006, one in which he jumped all the way from the Florida State League to the show in less than six months, he breezed through lower-level competition, dominating hitters at times. In 23 combined minor league starts – over stints at Fort Myers, Double-A New Britain, and Triple-A Rochester, Garza posted tremendous statistics, holding opposing hitters to a .179 average while going 14-4 with a 1.99 ERA and 156 strikeouts in 135.2 innings pitched. Eluding any form of struggles in the minors, he earned a rapid call-up to Minnesota at the end of the season, where he had to overcome adversity and failure for the first real time in his professional career. Immediately upon his promotion with the Twins, the lanky righty impressed several Twins’ coaches with his mid-90s fastball, but unlike during his tenure in the lower ranks, hitters feasted on Garza, batting .301 against him in 10 appearances, when he relied too heavily on his fastball in trouble situations.
Similar to a number of other flame-throwing young starting pitchers, Homer Bailey most notably, he constantly turns to his plus-fastball, failing to mix in enough off-speed pitches to get by against strong offensive players. Working through this problem, which frustrated the Twins’ baseball operations department mightily, he enjoyed frequent stretches of success in 2007, beginning the season in Triple-A before joining the Twins after the All-Star Break. In 16 starts before his second go-around in Minneapolis, he posted a 3.48 ERA and 1.35 WHIP, striking out 95 in 92.0 innings. Then, in the majors, he immediately provided help at the big-league level, tossing 15 scoreless innings after being recalled. Down the stretch, he won five games for Minnesota in 15 games started, suffering seven losses while registering a 3.69 ERA along the way. His struggles at the Metrodome (1-10, 5.91 ERA in 13 career appearances), however, is a cause for concern, especially considering his new domed-workplace, Tropicana Field.
Yet, by adding Garza, one of the game’s consensual top prospects, the Rays solidify their starting rotation headed into 2008. The Rays’ pitching staff, a source of many jokes over the franchise’s ten-year history, is now starting to shape up rather nicely. The Rays now have the potential, similar to the talented Oakland Athletics group at the turn of the century, to own the rights to three potential young aces – Scott Kazmir, James Shields and, yes, now Garza. With a strong core of young pitchers competing for the available spots in the back of the rotation – the talented Edwin Jackson, Jeff Niemann, David Price, Andy Sonnanstine and Mitch Talbot – Tampa Bay should field its greatest staff in history come March.
"He's (Garza) a guy we project to get a lot better quickly," Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman told reporters. "We feel like we strengthened two areas of need, shortstop and starting pitching."
The sleeper in this deal for the Rays is Morlan, recently considered the Twins’ closer of the future. Still at least a year away from the majors, the 2004 third-round selection collected 18 saves in 41 games for High Single-A Fort Myers. The 21-year-old right-hander compiled a .315 ERA while striking out 92 (opposed to only 17 walks) in 65.2 innings. Harnessing a fastball in 90-93 MPH range, he should become a valuable member to Tampa Bay’s bullpen by the middle of 2009.
Pridie, a definite throw-in in this deal, revived his status with the Rays after an encouraging performance with the Durham Bulls at the end of the summer. Following a call-up from Double-A Montgomery, the 24-year-old outfielder tore it up in the International League. Feasting on Triple-A pitching, the lefty-throwing, right-handed swinging Pridie was extremely consistent, batting .318 (78-for-245) while chipping in four triples, 10 home runs, 39 RBIs and 12 stolen bases in 63 games for Durham down the stretch. Pridie does not have the offensive tools to achieve success as an everyday big-league hitter, but should provide the Twins with a capable defensive player and speed off the bench.
Giving up Young, of course, was an action that has surprised a lot of people. The number one overall pick in the 2003 draft and widely considered, including by Scout.com, as the top minor league prospect in all of baseball for years, the troubled outfielder has certainly made waves for all of the wrong reasons in his career. Go to You Tube and view the infamous bat-throwing incident as evidence.
In his first full season, though, he was voted the American League’s second-best rookie after hitting .288 and leading all AL rookies with 186 hits and 93 RBIs. The only newcomer to appear in all 162 games, he also collected 38 doubles, stole 10 bases and scored 65 runs.
And after an encouraging season, Young looked like he had grown up tremendously. But in the aftermath of Young cursing out manager Joe Maddon on the last day of the season, which dramatically affected his slim chance of being elected AL Rookie of the Year, the usual questions about Young again resurfaced throughout baseball circles.
Young, 22, has the pure baseball ability to be a superstar, an annual All-Star for years to come. But, even excluding his personal development, his plate discipline (only 27 walks in ‘07), which would make Oakland General Manager Billy Beane cringe, is a glaring weakness in Young’s game, too. He possesses a rocket throwing arm (16 outfield assists), the ability to hit for average and power (though his 13 home runs were surprisingly low), but he needs to get on base more, utilize his speed as effectively as possible, and play more consistent defense.
Regardless of his immaturity, from a plate-discipline point of view in addition to his behavior, he is the one player who will become the ultimate dictator of the outcome of this deal. If Young, the younger brother of Nationals' first baseman Dmitri, lives up to his astounding potential, through improving upon his attitude and gaining a better idea of what it takes to be a professional hitter (a possibility as he will be in the company of several Minnesota veterans), the Twins may have just landed the key building block to their future success. He might prove to be a steal of a deal. Minnesota already possesses a strong offensive nucleus, led by catcher Joe Mauer and former AL MVP Justin Morneau, but Young should make the Twins’ lineup one of the most feared in all of baseball. In a deal smothered by risk, especially with the status of ace Johan Santana looming, rookie General Manager Bill Smith appears to be building the cornerstone pieces to a potentially dominant franchise at the end of the decade.
This decision could backfire, undoubtedly, for the Rays. For an organization that once traded Bobby Abreu to the Philadelphia Phillies for a weak-hitting shortstop named Kevin Stocker, a deal which probably still haunts former Rays’ GM Chuck Lamar to this day, the chance for a repeat blunder must strike fear into the eyes of the common Tampa Bay fan. But only time will tell how this deal ends up, an intriguing story line to look for over the next few seasons. One thing is for certain, though: This has been the riskiest move of a dramatic Hot Stove season.
For Ken Rosthenthal’s take on Foxsports.com, click here.