Not a Rookie: Chris Young the Outfielder

Prospect Retro: Chris Young

Arizona Diamondbacks outfielder Chris Young had a poor 2009 season, and hasn't lived up to the expectations generated when he was a top prospect in the minor leagues. What kind of prospect was he, and is there any hope for his future?

Young was drafted in the 16th round by the Chicago White Sox in 2001, out of high school in Bellaire, Texas. He was well-known to scouts due to his blazing speed, but was very skinny and physically undeveloped in high school, which hurt his stock. Assigned to the rookie level Arizona League, Young hit .217/.308/.380 in 55 games, stealing seven bases but being caught eight times. He showed more power than expected with 13 doubles and five homers, but he fanned 54 times. I did not put him in the 2003 book, but would have given him a Grade C rating if I had, probably writing him up as a "very raw but interesting tools" type guy.

Moved up to Bristol in the Appalachian League in 2003, Young hit .290/.357/.479 with 21 steals in 28 attempts, 23 walks, and 40 strikeouts in 238 at-bats. The power was much more than expected, and he improved his reads on the bases. His strikeout rate wasn't bad. He posted a +18 percent OPS and an excellent SEC of +51 percent, indicating a broad base of skills. I gave him a Grade C+ in the 2004 book, writing that he was "intriguing" but that we needed more data from higher levels.

Promoted to Kannapolis in the South Atlantic League in 2004, Chris hit .262/.365/.505 with 24 homers, 31 steals in 40 attempts, 66 walks, and 145 strikeouts in 465 at-bats. He posted a superb .432 secondary average, with a SEC at +57 percent. The high strikeout rate wasn't attractive and scouts were concerned about contact at higher levels, but the solid walk rate made up for some of that, and his power/speed combination looked special. I gave him a Grade B- in the '05 book, drawing the inevitable comparison to Mike Cameron as a low batting average, speed, walks, power, and defense guy.

The White Sox jumped Young up a level in 2005, skipping advanced Class A and assigning him to Double-A Birmingham at age 21. He handled the promotion without much trouble, hitting.277/.377/.545 with 26 homers, 32 steals in 41 attempts, 70 walks, and 129 strikeouts in 466 at-bats. I was very happy to see his strikeout rate come down, an excellent sign for a young player skipping a grade and transitioning to advanced pitching. His OPS+ came out at +26 percent, and his SEC was off-the-charts at +94 percent compared to league. The White Sox traded him to Arizona as part of the Javier Vasquez package that winter. I gave Young a Grade A-, writing that the Sox would eventually regret selecting Brian Anderson as their center fielder of the future over Young.

Arizona moved Young up to Triple-A Tucson for 2006. He hit .276/.363/.532 in 100 games, drawing 52 walks against 71 strikeouts in 402 at-bats, hitting 21 homers and swiping 17 bags in 22 attempts. Although the batting average was low for the Tucson/PCL context, I remained very excited about his broad base of skills, his walks, and his still declining strikeout rate. He hit .243/.308/.386 in 30 games for Arizona in a late-season trial, not great but it was just 70 at-bats. I kept him with a Grade A- rating in the '07 book, warning readers not to "expect a big batting average, but he should perform well in all other areas."

Young was a regular outfielder for Arizona in 2007 (.237/.295/.467, 32 homers, 27 steals, 43 walks, 141 Ks in 569 AB) and 2008 (.248/.315/.443, 22 homers, 14 steals, 62 walks, 165 Ks in 625 AB). Both seasons demonstrated his power/speed skills, but also showed that strikeouts were a problem, and he didn't walk as much as he did in the minors.

2009 was a down year: .212/.311/.400 with 15 homers, 11 steals in 15 attempts, 59 walks, 133 strikeouts in 433 at-bats. He was bothered by a nagging groin injury, and at one point he got sent back to Triple-A Reno for a re-set following a severe slump (he hit .370/.460/.667 in 13 games). Young got his power stroke back in September, hitting .263 with eight homers, and early reports from spring camp are encouraging about his physical condition and attitude. Word last summer was that Young was frustrated and down on himself, but rumor has it that he's more confident this spring. We'll see.

The groin was an issue and he seemed to let the slump nag at him mentally, though by September that seemed a thing of the past. He's always going to strike out a lot, but his walk rate actually improved last year. He did show a very sharp platoon split (.920 OPS against lefties, just .639 against normals).  Eno Saris at Fangraphs did a good breakdown of Young's problems with contact rate here:

http://www.fangraphs.com/fantasy/index.php/chris-young-the-outfielder

Young's defense has not lived up to expectations, at least according to UZR, which doesn't like him much. On the other hand, Fielding Bible likes him, with +12 runs saved in 2008 and +7 last year. Total Zone adopts a middle ground, rating him as below average his first two seasons but above average last year. Given the mixed results in the fielding metrics, I'd be interested in the observations of readers who have seen him more than I have.

I know people are disappointed in Young, but it is too soon to give up on him, and I think there's a reasonable chance that 2009 was just a bad year. I know the Mike Cameron comparison is overused, but check this out: in 1997 at the age of 24, Cameron hit .259/.356/.433 with a 109 OPS+. In 1998 at the age of 25, Cameron had a bad season, losing the strike zone and hitting just .210/.285/.336 for a 63 OPS+. He rebounded in 1999 at the age of 26, hitting .256/.357/.469 for a 105 OPS+.

Now, Young has never had a season where his OPS was above National League average, and his strikeout rate was much higher than Cameron's. He has been a disappointment, especially if you buy UZR's reading on his glovework. But Young is just entering his prime seasons now, beginning 2010 at the age of 26. The power, speed, and walks that made him so intriguing in the minors are still there. He can still tap into that with a fresh start and a healthy season. I wouldn't give up on him just yet.

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