Orioles expecting big things from slugging prospect Young

At 6 feet 5, 296 pounds, he could be power hitter team has longed for

March 06, 2004|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - As the Orioles conclude another morning workout, with players gathering on the main field for some last-minute instruction, the sky suddenly grows dark, as if a switch has been flicked to the down position. A large shadow encases each uniformed body, and it's no longer necessary to squint.

Have storm clouds moved in, or is Walter Young blocking the sun again? Young is listed at 6 feet 5, 296 pounds, but he's about more than just size.

The Orioles weren't looking for a defensive lineman when they claimed him off waivers from the Pittsburgh Pirates in November, though he played end for his Mississippi high school. They weren't looking for someone who could bang bodies with Shaquille O'Neal in the paint, though he also was a center.

They were looking for a legitimate power-hitting prospect, someone who wouldn't tease them with his vast potential and tape-measure home runs before flaming out. They didn't need another Calvin Pickering, their former minor league Player of the Year who devoured carbohydrates instead of fastballs and is trying to rescue his career in the Kansas City Royals' camp. And they didn't need another Sam Horn, who had a big swing and a bigger tendency to strike out.

The Orioles are convinced that Young, who turned 24 last month, will be different. He hasn't played above Single-A and his numbers declined last season, but nobody in the system can match what he brings to the table - and not just his appetite.

"Scouts talk about tools you can't teach, like speed or velocity on the fastball," said Doc Rodgers, director of minor league operations. "His type of raw power, you either have to draft it, trade for it or whatever the case may be. But you can't teach it."

Young was named the Single-A South Atlantic League's Most Valuable Player in 2002 after hitting .333 with 25 homers, 103 RBIs and a .563 slugging percentage while leading Hickory to the championship. He made the Single-A Carolina League's postseason All-Star team in 2003, batting .278 with 20 homers and 87 RBIs for Lynchburg, but the Pirates needed room on their 40-man roster and tried to sneak him through waivers.

Ever try to sneak a near-300 pound man through anything?

"They wanted to see if they could do it without anybody picking me up, but it backfired on them," said Young, who hit a run-scoring double off Rodrigo Lopez in Tuesday's intrasquad game. "It was kind of a shock at first, but after a while I started thinking that it could be a plus for me."

Said Rodgers: "The Pirates are in a situation like a lot of clubs in a rebuilding mode where they made a lot of trades at the major league level to get prospects, and when that happens, you're unable to protect them all. We saw during the Rule 5 draft how deep they are in players in their minor league system. You flat-out can't protect them all.

"Walter was someone they tried to get off the roster early, at a time when other teams were struggling with the same type of issues. But fortunately for us, we were able to get him."

Young's average dipped 55 points last year, his on-base percentage 42 points (.348) and his slugging percentage 101 points (.462). He pulled a groin muscle, and tweaked it again after returning too soon.

"That's baseball. Sometimes you're hot and sometimes you're not," he said. "I'm grateful for the numbers I ended up with. It sounds like a down year, but it's still good."

The Orioles are waiting to find out how Young fares once the exhibition games begin, but they know he can put on a show during batting practice. A left-handed hitter, Young has launched some prodigious home runs, the kind that leave ears ringing from the sound at impact.

Though he'll never been nimble around the bag, he isn't a statue, either. And Young is smart enough to seek out first basemen Rafael Palmeiro and David Segui for fielding advice.

"Those are the key guys," he said. "I want to know the veteran stuff like things to look out for in different situations, how they go about their business. Break them down and see what they're about."

The Pirates chose Young in the 31st round of the 1999 draft, giving him the opportunity to pursue a sport he loved the most, and to pay tribute to his father, Walter Sr., who played for the semipro Black Sox in Hattiesburg, Miss.

"His career was cut short because of personal reasons, so he can live it through me," Young said.

"Baseball is in my blood. It's just something I like, and you can put a few more years into it than you can football."

If a fight breaks out this spring, the entire team could hide behind him. Young is accustomed to being the enforcer, even though he's quiet in nature and non-threatening beyond his size.

"Guys look at me like, `Dang, he's big,' but I'm used to it," he said. "I've always been a big guy and I've always been an athletic guy. I use that to my advantage. I guess that's just my role in life. I wouldn't change it for anything."

Young stands beside Double-A infielder Mike Fontenot in the clubhouse, and the contrast between them is comical. Fontenot, who's 5-8, 160 pounds, could use one of Young's pant legs as a sleeping bag.

"He's a huge guy, but he's a great guy, too," Fontenot said. "I'll definitely stay on his good side."

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