For Orioles' Delmon Young, another ride in the major leagues

Former top prospect overcame discipline issues, ankle injury to likely make club's Opening Day roster

March 27, 2014|By Eduardo A. Encina, The Baltimore Sun

SARASOTA, Fla. — At age 20, Delmon Young was the top prospect in the game — a former No. 1 overall pick in a hurry to make his mark in the major leagues. But these days, after eight years in the big leagues, Young is definitely more patient with the process.

Most veterans dread the hours spent on bus rides throughout Florida during spring training, but that's no problem for Young now that he's finally healthy following nearly three years of essentially playing on one leg.

"It's actually fun," Young said. "After missing all of last spring training and having to play in extended [spring training], I'm like, 'I'll make double road trips.' I don't mind. Big league camp is a lot better than sitting and watching it."

With Opening Day just around the corner — and the Orioles' 25-man roster being finalized over the next few days — Young's story might be the best of the bunch. With the announcement that Nolan Reimold will open the season on the disabled list, Young, who signed a minor league deal in January, is likely to make the club's roster as a right-handed designated hitter and reserve outfielder.

In fact, Young could be in the Opening Day starting lineup when the Orioles open the season against the defending World Series champion Boston Red Sox on Monday at Camden Yards. The Orioles will face left-hander Jon Lester, and manager Buck Showalter likes the idea of playing Nelson Cruz in left field against left-handers, opening a spot for another right-handed hitter at designated hitter, which could be Young.

There's no question Young can hit. He's a .282 lifetime hitter and has a .303 average in his career against left-handed pitching. He's not known for his defense, but the Orioles have been impressed with his outfield work, particularly his arm. And for a player who arrived in camp with some baggage, he has done everything right this spring.

"Delmon came in since Day 1 and was engaged in all phases of the game," Showalter said. "He's one of the first guys there, one of the last guys to leave. I think he's — I don't want to say, humbled himself — nothing is beneath him all spring. [He's done] everything you've asked him. You could be picky with anybody."

Young said this is the first time he has felt completely healthy since 2011 after dealing with a nagging right ankle injury that ultimately needed surgery.

After missing the entire spring last season recovering from microfracture surgery, he's healthy again and back on the field. He can already tell the difference. The power in the ankle is back at the plate, allowing him to drive the ball more. And he has been able to cover more ground in the outfield because he's in better shape.

"I couldn't lift weights," Young said of being injured. "I wasn't in the weight room. It just hurt standing. By the third at bat of the game, it hurt to get in the batter's box because [the dirt isn't] flat anymore it's whatever shape from whoever's been in there. I was hitting in different positions and had no drive from the back side. Once I was committed to swing, I was jumping out to swing.

"I feel strong in the box," Young said. "I'm feeling a whole lot better now. … You can't do much when you're bone-on-bone."

Young was coming off the best season of his career — he hit .298 with 21 home runs and 112 RBIs in 2010 for the Minnesota Twins — but in June 2011, he landed on the disabled list with a bone bruise in his ankle. Two months later, he was traded to the Detroit Tigers.

He planned on getting surgery to remove bone spurs in the offseason, but once the Tigers advanced to the American League Championship Series — and, later, after an MRI in December revealed that he would face a five-month recovery going into his final season before becoming a free agent — he delayed the surgery and said he played the entire 2012 season through pain.

The cartilage began to wear down so that bone was rubbing against bone, Young said.

Still, Young helped the Tigers to the World Series that season, hitting .312 with three homers and nine RBIs in the postseason and winning the ALCS Most Valuable Player award.

But after finally having microfracture surgery on the ankle — a procedure that would force him to miss the entire 2013 spring training — he was forced to settle for a one-year, $750,000 deal with the Philadelphia Phillies. Young split the season between Philadelphia and a return to the Tampa Bay Rays, who selected him first overall in the 2003 draft. He batted .260 with 11 homers and 38 RBIs in 103 games.

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