Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder are set to become the marquee free agent first basemen this offseason, but they may have some company. Dmitri Young has reportedly expressed interest in returning to the major leagues. Suddenly, teams missing out on Albert and the Prince have a viable Option C when the signing period rolls around.
Clearly Young’s desire to return has no bearing on any market whatsoever, but the story remains interesting. Young told Bill Ladson of MLB.com that he plans on participating in the Venezuelan Winter League, beginning in October. From there, the realistic goal is to receive a spring training invitation on a non-guaranteed, minor league deal. After all, he hasn’t played in the major leagues since 2008, and appeared in just 14 games for the Nationals’ minor-league affiliates the very next season. He also officially retired in March 2010, presumably due to his struggles with diabetes.
He wants to come back, but will anyone give him a chance?
Turns out he was a better hitter than I originally thought. Nothing really stood out about him throughout his career — aside from his awkward physique — and he was never one of five or six best at his position. But he could still hit, and in a consistently solid way. Young put up a career .292/.351/.475 line, with a .352 wOBA, 111 wRC+, .183 ISO and .324 BABIP. He hit the ball hard and did so rather frequently.
From 1998-2008, 114 players racked up 4,500 plate appearances. Young’s wOBA ranked in the upper half. His batting average on balls in play actually ranked in the top ten in the same span. Over that 11-year period, he had an outlying campaign both positive and negative, but tended to hover around the .345-.360 wOBA range.
Unfortunately, he was also a defensive liability, which ate away at his overall WAR marks in his better seasons. Interestingly enough, he didn’t even play the field all that often throughout those poorly rated seasons. He just performed so atrociously in a limited sample that the negative raw tally inflated. In several seasons he only played the field given the necessity, like when the Nationals played him at first base after Nick Johnson shockingly succumbed to injuries. Young played a good amount of left field with the 2003 Tigers, but they lost about 321 games that season: their way of doing things that year is not exactly a model for anything remotely successful.
There were also a few seasons where Young fared favorably in UZR’s eyes, but suffice to say scouts and front offices seldom praised his defensive work.
Young was a hitter, and teams valued him as such.
As for his return, this year would have been his age-37 campaign. Despite posting a .394 on base percentage in limited action back in 2008, he is now four years removed from his last major league plate appearance. Some older players take a year off to completely rehabilitate injuries and return fresh, with Jim Edmonds being the most recent example. Returning four years later is a much different story. Young would likely compete with mid-level prospects for the final bench spot, all of whom have more upside and less of a cost at the major league level. A successful comeback seems unlikely when put in that context, but teams always love veteran bats off the bench.
If Young can still hit, even a little bit, he’ll have a shot at returning. If he can pose even the slightest threat of power off the bench, he’ll have a shot at returning. And while he is no stranger to off-the-field issues involving domestic violence and alcoholism, he has always been a popular clubhouse presence. No, that obviously doesn’t justify his transgressions, but it seems safe to assume that a team giving him a shot would factor his potential leadership and clubhouse skills into the equation.
How would he project right now? From 2005-08, he hit .287/.349/.461. Factor in aging and his lack of recent play — since retiring, he’s co-hosted a sports collectibles program — and a conservative projection would have him closer to .260/.315/.370. Of course, with the league-wide decline in offense, that would represent average production.
The clear issue is that so much remains up in the air about his abilities. If the time off has helped him get into the best shape of his life, and the hand-eye coordination and muscle memory returns quickly, some team will take a flier. It’s hard to imagine no team expressing any type of interest, especially on a deal with absolutely no risk. Given how much certain teams value intangibles, it’s also fairly likely that Young will don a major league uniform if he shows even a glimmer of his former hitting prowess.
Returning after four years is unconventional, but that word aptly describes Young as a player. Don’t expect another five years out of him, but as comical as his return initially sounded, he has a decent shot of making it back.