We were in Las Vegas a month ago Monday, Matthew Berry, Stephania Bell and myself, up on the stage at the ESPN Zone discussing fantasy baseball. Yeah, it is a pretty cool gig. Anyway, someone in the audience asked about Arizona center fielder Chris Young, and I said I didn't think that 32/27 season was a fluke at all. In fact, I said, with possible misguided pride, I expected him to raise his batting average quite a bit, at least 30 points.
That's when the dissenters came out of the woodwork. Berry disagreed. Members of the audience snickered. Even former third baseman Matt Williams, now an invested partner with the Diamondbacks, said Young wouldn't hit better than .250, though he raved about every other part of his game. OK, so maybe expecting a .270 batting average was a bit too bold.
Of course it is way, way too early in the new season to discern anything about Young from one week, but I still like what I see. He's hit four home runs, stolen a few bases and oh, what's that oft-forgotten statistic over there in the corner, eight walks already? Wow, that's a good sign.
The Diamondbacks made a wise move Monday, locking up Young to a new six-year contract extension, taking him through his arbitration years and even into a year of free agency. Arizona believes Young is the real deal. The Rockies sewed up a similar deal with shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, while Toronto realized this offseason how valuable Alex Rios and Aaron Hill are, making sure they'll remain affordable Blue Jays into the next decade. Now not every player who gets a shiny, new contract extension is going to be a fantasy monster for the entire term of the deal, but I do think there's a reason not everyone is rewarded this way. These players are special.
From a fantasy aspect, there is some relevance. If the team believes, and doesn't want to take any chances on losing their assets, then fantasy owners in keeper leagues can feel a bit safer as well. Then again, pretty much anyone who can deliver 32 home runs and 27 stolen bases as a rookie is going to be coveted, no matter their contract status or team they play for. I think Young and Rios will continue to improve, probably more statistically than Tulowitzki and Hill, but those guys are among the top fielders at their middle infield spots. That has value in the real world as well.
Fantasy owners don't have a clue whether contract status plays a role in performance. Let's just admit that right now, OK? Was Tulowitzki going to struggle his sophomore season without that new deal? Puh-leeze. Here's what Young told MLB.com Monday.
"It doesn't change anything," Young said. "I'm still going to go out there and play ball. I'm still going to go out there and everything is going to be the same no matter if I had a contract or I was a guy just trying to stay on the team. I'm going to play the same way."
Is this sheer hyperbole? Well, I'm convinced what Young is saying is legit. Sure, we all worry about job security, and while I have no idea what it feels like to get a $30-something million deal, I'd imagine it doesn't suck. I just refuse to imply Young was going to be more motivated to perform before he received the deal, and similarly, I don't buy the notion he'll let up now that he's rolling in the Benjamins.
I'd prefer to focus on what the player is capable of statistically, and how he will grow. Young batted .237 a season ago. That's not good. Of the 162 qualifiers for the batting title, only six players hit for a lower average (Brandon Inge, Rickie Weeks, Juan Uribe, Andruw Jones, Ray Durham and Nick Punto). You'll notice two of those guys were in contract years, but Uribe and Jones found work just fine. Young struck out quite a bit and didn't walk near enough for a leadoff hitter, or in line with his minor league rates, but it was just one season.
Young was more patient at the plate after the 2007 All-Star break, taking more pitches, posting a higher (but still low) on-base percentage, doubling his power output. He's learning on the job. He's hit, run and walked at all levels before, I think he's going to continue to improve at the major league level as well. Even if he can't raise his average as much as I expect, you know the homers and steals will be there. There's tremendous value in getting a 30/30 guy and filling in later with a batting average helper, if you need.
Ultimately, Young is not the perfect leadoff hitter, but since he's got 30-steal potential, and the Diamondbacks don't believe they have other options, that's where he stays. Williams said he expected more power from Young this season, and so far that looks prescient. We both think he's going to be hitting third or fourth soon. I don't get why nobody expects the batting average to rise, however. One year should never define a player, for good and bad, especially when the player is a rookie. I don't think Young is winning a batting title anytime soon, but I don't think he's Adam Dunn, either. I take the over on Young batting .260 this season, thanks to better plate discipline, and I'd call that an impressive step.
In fact, I would argue Eric Byrnes is actually a better leadoff option for Arizona than Young. It's clear to me Young has more power, hitting a third more home runs as a raw rookie. Their doubles were the same. Byrnes ran a lot more, and had a higher on-base percentage. Byrnes isn't much of a walker, either, and it should be noted his career on-base percentage is still 20 points lower than Juan Pierre. The point is, Byrnes is 32 and has averaged 24 home runs his two seasons in Arizona. Young is a lot younger, has a better contract and will have 24 home runs by August.
Yeah, I'm on the Chris Young bandwagon. I love the move Arizona made, and I'm pleased to own Young and his emerging skill set in a few keeper leagues. This is not a sell-high guy. It's only going to get better.
Jennifer (New York): "EK, my head hurts from reading all the double-talk and triple-talk coming out of the White Sox organization regarding Jerry Owens. Could you please translate for me and can I no longer count on him to deliver those 40ish steals?"
Eric: What, you think Ozzie Guillen has a clue what he's going to do with Owens? Nick Swisher is off to a nice start in terms of walks, and he's going to post a high on-base percentage. So what if he doesn't steal bases or hit for average? What Guillen should do is leave Swisher there and watch him score 100 runs. What I still think he will do is play Owens, more of a natural center fielder than Swisher, and lead him off because half the managers in the league think the leadoff hitter has to run very fast and steal bases. They don't look at on-base percentage. Plus, I think there will be opportunity, as Carlos Quentin still needs to prove he be an everyday player. Owens should be off the DL this week, and Guillen hasn't forgotten the big spring he had. He's going to play. It wouldn't surprise me, however, if Alexei Ramirez ends up in the minors as a result.
James (Michigan): "Eric, I enjoyed your Monday blog on the Tigers offense, but disagree about Curtis Granderson. How can you say this guy can't get better? He carried the Tigers a year ago, is their most exciting player and should go 30/30. Also, I think Gary Sheffield is going to be fine and have an MVP season. Go Tigers!"