The Young Dilemma

The big news of the day in baseball is that the Texas Rangers have officially asked Michael Young to move to third base to make room for hot prospect Elvis Andrus, and that he was offended enough by that to either request or demand a trade. After all, he was just awarded his first gold glove as a shortstop, and I’m certain that he feels he’s a good defensive player, despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary.

The UZR that we publish here on FanGraphs from the BIS data source has him as an atrocious fielder in 2004 and 2005, but merely just not good from 2006 to 2008. John Dewan’s +/- system, based on the same BIS data, agrees with that assessment. The UZR data that MGL has published based on the Stats Inc data is also in agreement. While there was a rough transition for Young, he’s gotten quite a bit better at shortstop over the last few years, to the point where he’s now just not good instead of disastrous. After working that hard, it’s not surprising that he feels offended at being asked to move off the position.

It’s for the best, though.

A current projection for Young’s defense in 2009 at shortstop would be around -7 or -8 runs, and getting worse by the year. He is 32 years old, and defense peaks at about age 24 or 25 – he’s a pretty long way from his defensive prime. It’s not hard to see him getting back to that -10 to -15 range as an SS pretty soon, especially if he gets bit by an injury or too. And really, there’s very few circumstances where it’s worth it to an organization to keep a -10 to -15 defender at a premium position, especially when they have an opening on the roster at an easier spot to defend.

The Rangers don’t really have a long term third baseman hanging around, but Andrus looks like a legitimate major league shortstop in the making. Andrus is almost certainly the better defender of the two, and if the goal is to have Young stick in Texas while surrounding him with the best talent possible, having him slide to third base to get Andrus’ glove into the line-up makes a lot of sense.

However, that brings us to the second part of the news story – Young apparently has little interest in moving to third base and would prefer to be traded. Does having Young at third make more sense for the Rangers than having no Young at all?

Young is clearly in decline, as we talked about a few months ago. His win values the last three years are 3.6 wins in 2006, 2.6 wins in 2007, and 1.7 wins in 2008. CHONE thinks he’s going to bounce back and be a +2.5 win player in 2009, so he’s not without value, but he’s not the all-star that he’s made out to be anymore.

However, as a third baseman, his defensive deficiencies could be hidden – there’s just fewer opportunities for third baseman to use their gloves, so Young’s issues going to his left wouldn’t be as magnified as they are at shortstop. He’s going to project as a league average-ish hitter either way, and the difference in position adjustments would be mostly covered by his expected improvement in relative defensive performance. He’s a +2 to +2.5 win player at either SS or 3B, though there’s probably some pretty significant decline coming in future years.

Can you trade Young given his contract? He’s due something like $60 to $65 million over the next five years (part of the $80 million extension he signed has already been paid), which values him as a +2.5 to +3.0 win player going forward. Given that he’s a +2.0 to +2.5 win player right now and headed for his 32-36 seasons, the contract costs more than Young is worth, especially in this market. If the Rangers can actually find a team that values him as a shortstop and will take his entire contract off their hands, it’s worth pursuing. $12 million buys a lot in free agency right now, and it seems extremely unlikely that Young would be able to demand a 5 year, $60 to $65 million contract if he were available on the free market.

In reality, I don’t expect a real suitor to step forward for Young. The teams that need shortstops already low-balled Rafael Furcal this winter, and Orlando Cabrera is currently struggling to drum up interest. Having Young accept a move to third base is likely the best scenario for all involved.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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