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Rays top prospects of all-time: No. 4

After 20 years of Rays baseball, we’re counting down the top prospects in franchise history.

Major League Baseball Futures Game
Delmon Young had an explosive bat, but he never became an All-Star like he was expected to
Photo by John Reid III /MLB Photos via Getty Images

Next in the list of top prospects in team history is an outfielder who had unlimited promise. He never lived up to it, but the Rays were able to capitalize and send him away in a franchise-changing trade.

20. SS Reid Brignac
19. RHP Matt White
18. RHP Chris Archer
17. RHP Wade Davis/LHP Jake McGee
16. RHP Jeremy Hellickson
15. 1B/LHP Brendan McKay
14. SS Tim Beckham
13. RHP Brent Honeywell
12. SS Willy Adames
11. OF Desmond Jennings
10. LHP Blake Snell
9. OF Wil Myers
8. LHP Scott Kazmir
7. 3B Evan Longoria
6. OF Rocco Baldelli
5. IF/OF Melvin Upton Jr.

4. OF Delmon Young

Acquired: No. 1 pick by Devil Rays (2003)

Baseball America Top-100 ranks: 1 (2005), 3 (2003), 3 (2004), 3 (2006)
(Devil) Rays Top-30 ranks: 1 (2004), 1 (2005), 1 (2006), 2 (2003)
League Top-20 ranks: 1 (2004 South Atlantic League), 1 (2005 Southern League), 1 (2005 International League), 1 (2006 International League)

(Devil) Rays best tools: Best average hitter (2004, 2005, 2006), Best outfield arm (2004, 2005, 2006), Best power hitter (2004, 2005)
League best tools: Most exciting player (2005 Southern League), Best batting prospect (2005 Southern League), Best power prospect (2005 Southern League), Best outfield arm (2005 Southern League)

In the mid-2000s, the Devil Rays were still looking to break through and shed their status as a laughingstock. In 2005, they won 65 games in another last-place finish. They had some young players who could be part of a future winner — Scott Kazmir, Carl Crawford, Rocco Baldelli, and Jonny Gomes among them — but Young was the guy who was going to transform the lineup.

That season, he won Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year. He was nothing short of fantastic, particularly with Double-A Montgomery. In 84 Southern League games, he slugged 20 home runs and stole 25 bases with a .336 average and .986 OPS. This came after he skipped Class A-Advanced ball entirely. The numbers tailed off a bit with Durham — he batted .285 with a .751 OPS, but that was forgivable for the youngest hitter in the league.

The scouting report absolutely backed up the stats from the newly minted No. 1 prospect in baseball. Young had great strength and the ability to hit for power to all fields. He made a ton of contact, and he took full advantage of average athleticism to make an impact on the bases too. In the field, he had good range with a great arm.

He was simply living up to the hype after being the No. 1 pick in the draft just two years earlier. It took him three months to sign, so he was unable to play in the regular season. He did play in the Arizona Fall League, though, just a month after turning 18. A player that young with no professional experience getting assigned to the AFL, and playing well, no less, is incredibly rare.

The opposing pitchers in the AFL are typically more experienced than the ones found in Class-A ball, so it’s not surprising that in his official pro debut in 2004, Young excelled in the South Atlantic League. He hit 25 home runs and 56 extra-base hits in 131 games with Charleston with a .320 average, .386 on-base percentage, and .536 slugging percentage. He maintained his status as a top-three prospect in baseball.

Young needed more seasoning, so he returned to Durham to start 2006. He was better than he was at the end of 2005 with the Bulls, but he didn’t reach the heights he had with Charleston and Montgomery the two previous seasons. In 86 games, he batted .316 with a .341 OBP and .474 SLG, still a really good season for a 20 year old. He still earned his first promotion to the majors. After getting plunked by Freddy Garcia in his first plate appearance, he homered later in the game. He had eight hits in his first three games. In 30 games with Tampa Bay, he hit three homers with a .812 OPS.

However, that proved to be the season that saw some of the shine come off his elite status. After his first season, Young had some pretty low walk rates, but he didn’t strike out a lot either. All of his reports (BA, $) praised his knowledge of the strike zone.

In 2005, Young was suspended three games for bumping an umpire in the Southern League. He gained notoriety for an uglier incident in 2016. The minor league umpires were on strike, and he was ejected after disagreeing with a called third strike. On his way back to the dugout, he tossed his bat back toward the umpire, hitting him in the arm. He was suspended 50 games.

In addition, more than once, Young publicly expressed frustration with the organization for not promoting him to the majors sooner.

Young was quite literally a full-time major leaguer in 2007. He played in all 162 games and finished second in American League Rookie of the Year voting. However, his numbers declined from his cup of coffee the previous season. He still batted .288, but his OBP was only .316. While teammate Carlos Pena led the league with a .345 ISO (SLG minus BA), Young ranked 136th out of 162 qualified players. His raw power was not coming through in games.

With an opportunity to upgrade its pitching staff, Tampa Bay made a shocking trade. It sent Young, a former No. 1 pick, top prospect in baseball, and still just 22 years old, to Minnesota along with two other players for Matt Garza, Jason Bartlett, and Eddie Morlan.

The trade worked out for the Rays, who won the 2008 American League pennant. For the Twins, Young never became the player he looked like he would as a prospect. In 2010, it looked like a breakout could be coming. As a 24 year old, he batted .298 with a .333 OBP and .493 SLG, thanks to career highs in doubles (46) and home runs (21). He even finished 10th in AL MVP voting. Instead of building on that, he regressed the following season and was traded to the Tigers. He was named MVP of the 2012 ALCS with two home runs in four games against the Yankees.

As a prospect, Young’s knowledge of the strike zone may have been an asset, but it was eventually consumed by his aggressive approach. Despite his great strength, he was unable to wait to truly find his pitch to hit, so he never hit as many as home runs as he was probably capable of. Year after year, even as he gained more experience, he remained among the league leaders in swing percentage, swinging at pitches out of the zone, and swinging strike percentage. When he was in what should have been his prime, he was bouncing around between the Phillies, Orioles, and even the Rays. He was only 29 when he last played in a major league game in 2015.

Young had even bigger problems off the field. In 2012, he pleaded guilty to aggravated harassment in New York after allegedly using anti-Semitic slurs in an altercation while intoxicated. In addition to performing community service, he was required to attend a program at the Museum of Tolerance.

Still just 32, Young hasn’t closed the book on his baseball career. This offseason, he’s been in the Australian Baseball League. He’s tied for third with 13 home runs, and he’s 21st in the league with a .911 OPS, although he is one of the oldest players in the league. In the end, he was unable to make adjustments to translate his tools into All-Star production, and he probably lost more athleticism than was expected when he first signed. Despite his strong arm, he never developed into a quality outfielder either.