Prospect Retrospective: Carlos Delgado
A reader recently requested a Prospect Retrospective for Carlos Delgado. I also got a nasty email the same day from someone who hates this feature, saying that they are pointless and stupid. However, more people seem to like them than dislike them, so here we go.
Born and raised in Puerto Rico, Carlos Delgado came to the attention of baseball scouts as a teen and drew interest from several organizations including the Montreal Expos, New York Mets, Texas Rangers, and Cincinnati Reds once he was old enough to sign in 1988. This was before Puerto Rico came under the umbrella of the amateur draft. Delgado ended up signing with the Toronto Blue Jays. At the time he was a catcher, but scouts were most interested in his left-handed bat.
Delgado made his debut in the New York-Penn League in 1989. He hit just .180 in 113 plate appearances, but he was also 17 years old, playing against a lot of college-trained pitchers, and he showed good plate discipline by drawing 23 walks.
Returned to St. Catherine's for 1990, Carlos took a big step forward, hitting .281/.382/.417 with six homers, 35 walks, and 65 strikeouts in 273 plate appearances. His glovework behind the plate was raw, but the bat looked very promising, earning him the Number Four spot on the Baseball America New York-Penn League Top 10 Prospects list. His combination of power, plate discipline, and performance stood out, and even as a league-repeater he was still one of the youngest players in the circuit at age 18.
Delgado moved up to Mrytle Beach in the South Atlantic League for 1991, where he hit .286/.397/.458 in 132 games, with 18 homers, 75 walks, and 97 strikeouts. His defense was still rough: he gave up 29 passed balls and made 19 errors, but his outstanding hitting stood out and he was still only 18 years old. A possible move to the outfield or first base was already being considered, but the Jays wanted to stick with him at catcher as long as possible. He was named the Number Three prospect in the Sally League by BA, and was clearly one of the most promising young power hitters in the minor leagues.
As good as 1991 was, 1992 was simply stunning.
Catching almost every day, Delgado played 133 games for Dunedin in the High-A Florida State League, hitting .324/.402/.579 with 30 doubles, 30 homers, 100 RBI, 59 walks, and 91 strikeouts in 552 plate appearances. Remember: that's the Florida State League, where fly balls die, and the league was even more pitching-oriented back then than it is nowadays. Half the teams in the 1992 Florida State League had team ERAs lower than 3.00.
His defense behind the plate still needed a lot of work, but no one really cared due to his outstanding hitting skills. His bat was clearly good enough for first base if a position switch was necessary. He was named the Top Prospect in the league, and he deserved it. He would be a certain Grade A prospect at that point in his career.
Any concerns about Delgado's ability to adapt at higher levels were brushed aside in 1993. He destroyed the Double-A Eastern League, hitting .303/.430/.524 with 25 homers, 102 RBI, 102 walks, and 98 strikeouts in 581 plate appearances. He continued to catch almost every day and continued to have problems with passed balls and errors, but his hitting was tremendous and he earned league MVP honors.
He was not named the top prospect however, with teammate Alex Gonzalez (a superior defender at shortstop) earning that honor from BA. Delgado came in second. He made his major league debut late in the season, getting two plate appearances, resulting in an out and a walk.
Delgado split the 1994 strike season between Triple-A Syracuse, where he hit .319/.404/.541 in 85 games, with 19 homers, and Toronto. He played 43 games for the Jays, banging nine homers but having some issues with strikeouts and hitting just .215. He did post a strong .352 OBP and a .438 SLG, which gave him an OPS+ slightly better than league at 103. The Jays realized that he wasn't going to be a regular catcher at this point and tried to make him a left fielder, with poor results due to lack of range.
1995 was similar: outstanding Triple-A performance (.318/.403/.610, 22 homers in 91 games), but a struggle to replicate in the majors, where he hit .165/.212/.297 in 99 plate appearances. His talent was never doubted, but he needed consistent playing time and a set position.
He got that playing time in 1996, earning a job as Toronto's designated hitter with some occasional playing time at first base. He performed well, hitting .270/.353/.490 with 25 homers and a 112 OPS+. He improved his production to .262/.350/.528, 30 homers, 127 OPS+ in 1997, then took a giant step forward in '98 (.292/.385/.592, 38 homers, 151 OPS+) at age 26.
For the next 11 seasons, Delgado was one of the most consistent power sources in baseball, averaging 40 homers and 126 RBI per 162-game season, with a .285/.391/.559 line, OPS+ 144. He never actually led the league in home runs, always behind someone else in the era of PEDs, but unlike many of the big name sluggers, he wasn't tainted by the scandal. He did lead the American League with an OPS+ of 161 and 145 RBI in 2003. His best season in WAR terms was 2000, when he hit .344/.470/.664 with a 7.4 WAR.
Delgado provided many highlight reel homers, particularly on September 25th, 2003, when he became the 15th major league player to hit four homers in one game, and the only one to hit those four homers in four at-bats.
He left the Blue Jays in 2005 by signing a free agent contract with the Marlins, but they went into cost-cutting mode the following season and traded him to the Mets, where he finished his career. Although his WAR values began to sag as he aged, he remained an effective power hitter until the very end, hitting .298/.393/.521 in 26 games to open the 2009 season, a season cut short by a hip injury that eventually ended his career at age 37.
Overall, Delgado hit .280/.383/.546 in his career, with 473 homers and a 138 OPS+. He racked up 43.5 WAR.
Where does he stand in historical context? Delgado's Bill James Sim Score comparables are Jason Giambi, Willie Stargell, Jeff Bagwell, David Ortiz, Jose Canseco, Paul Konerko, Fred McGriff, Albert Pujols, Willie McCovey, and Jim Edmonds. Among first basemen, Delgado's career WAR value puts him in the neighborhood with Orlando Cepeda (50.4), Giambi (49.9), Boog Powell (44.6), Al Oliver (43.4), Gil Hodges (41.8), and Don Mattingly (40.9).
Of that group, I think McGriff is a particularly good comp, a very-skilled, highly-productive power hitter not tainted by PED scandals, who was overshadowed by other players in the era of the lively ball and juice.
As a prospect, Delgado stood out for his combination of youth, plate discipline, and power. It is also notable how the Blue Jays handled him, moving him up one level at a time, avoiding rapid promotions, despite his terrific performance.