An Untimely Meditation on Michael Young

Michael Young won’t go away.

He’s 34 years old. He’s a bad defender pretty much anywhere on the diamond. He doesn’t walk much or hit for exceptional power. His biannual off-season whining when he’s moved to accommodate a superior fielder has damaged his reputation. (Remember “misled and manipulated?” Good times.) But, still, Young keeps on hitting.

As Joe Pawlikowski recently noted, Young — and his 3.6 WAR (on the back of his .372 wOBA — has been key for the American League West-leading Rangers, who’ve endured injuries to Young’s third-base replacement, Adrian Beltre, and to outfielders Josh Hamilton and Nelson Cruz. His playing time didn’t directly replace Hamilton’s or Cruz’s, but Young’s surprisingly strong offensive contribution (his 132 wRC+ is his best since 2005) has helped make up for what the team lost. The Rangers aren’t a lock for the playoffs yet, but they’re getting close, and Young has been a big part of that.

Which is exactly why this post so untimely: What should happen with Young in the off-season?

Sure, the Rangers don’t necessarily have to do anything with Young. Despite his grousing earlier in the year, he adapted well to his new role as combo DH/utility infielder. The playing time has been consistent, and he’s already logged 600 plate appearances this season. Young is guaranteed $16 million annually in 2012 and 2013, but the Rangers might have a bigger budget if the team continues to get revenue boosts from playoff runs and a big television contract.

On the other hand, if Beltre hadn’t been hurt, Young might have struggled to find extensive playing time. In addition, playing him full-time at DH would mean putting Mike Napoli either at catcher on a more-than-part-time basis or relegate him to the bench. But look at Napoli’s .416 wOBA this season and that doesn’t seem like a good idea.

So does Texas pay Young $16 million to platoon with Mitch Moreland at first base? Probably not. OLIVER updated its player projections today, and the 2012 numbers have Moreland with a .337 wOBA, Young with a .342 and Napoli with a .367. Napoli needs to play if the Rangers keep him around, and the projected offensive difference between Moreland and Young certainly isn’t worth $16 million.

As for money: Texas might have more coming in, but it’s no sure-thing that the team’s 2012 payroll will increase substantially over 2011’s Opening Day figure of about $92 million. Texas apparently has roughly $63 million committed to the next year’s team so far, but that doesn’t include arbitration raises for Cruz, Napoli (yes, he’s worth it), Mike Adams, Elvis Andrus or others. Moreover, if the Rangers want to have a chance at bringing back C.J. Wilson — or acquiring another stud pitcher in an unimpressive free-agent market — freeing up at least some of Young’s salary would be a big help.

So where could Young go? The Detroit Tigers are pretty much set for 2012, in terms of starting pitching, but Detroit likely will have a hole in at least one corner-outfield spot — and perhaps second and third bases as well. For the sake of argument, let’s focus on third base. Yes, Brandon Inge is signed for 2012, but he’s close to being a sunk cost this point. Even if his glove were still what it was a few years ago, it probably couldn’t support his bat. Wilson Betemit is a decent hitter for third, but given the third-base market in the off-season, he’s a big-time candidate for overpayment. Oh, and his glove his awful.

Young’s defense at third base is terrible, too. I don’t think it’s as bad as Betemit’s, but even if it is, Young’s .342 projected 2012 wOBA is almost 10 runs better over a full season than Betemit’s .325. That sort of production is enough to make Young an average player even if he’s a -10 third baseman. Yes, Young would be moving out of the best hitter’s park in the American League, but Detroit’s reputation as a pitcher’s paradise is greatly exaggerated — and it’s actually favorable to right-handed hitters. With Young, the Tigers could mitigate defensive issues by using something like the Victor Martinez System. Martinez is a DH most days, then (when he’s healthy) he relieves Alex Avila behind the plate once or twice a week. Why not have Young play third base, then on the days when Martinez is catching, move him to DH and have Inge (whom they have to pay anyway) play third?

Detroit might balk at paying Young’s salary for that kind of contribution, but Texas might be willing to eat some of the money in a trade. If Texas wouldn’t step up, the team wouldn’t expect much back in return. And it isn’t as if Detroit hasn’t been in this situation before: Seen as a defensive liability, Carlos Guillen was moved from position-to-position (and Young has been exactly the opposite of Guillen, in terms of health) and both his and Magglio Ordonez‘s big salaries are coming off of the books.

All of this assumes that Michael Young would be willing to go to Detroit. With his 10-and-5 rights in place since May — which is one reason why Texas wanted to move him before the season started — he must approve any trade. But assume Detroit were interested, then Young would get playing time on another contender and he’d have a solidified role. I always hear about how Michael Young just wants to win and help his team, so it’s not completely insane, right?

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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

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Michael Young was playing every day before Beltre got hurt.