Would Michael Young have been the Dodgers' opening day second baseman?
With concerns over Alexander Guerrero adjusting to the position, names like Miguel Rojas have been mentioned as a potential starter at second base. But Rojas is a career .234 hitter in the minor leagues. That would seem to leave an opportunity open for Young, who ended last season with the Dodgers, playing mostly first and third base.
But Young has decided not to compete for that job in the spring, opting instead to retire after 14 major league seasons. The 37-year-old Young finishes his career with a .300 batting average and 2,375 hits, playing virtually his entire career with Texas. He's the Rangers' all-time leader in hits, doubles, triples, runs and total bases.
Should we just get the Hall of Fame question out of the way? Those asking might be doing so sarcastically. But with 14 seasons on Young's résumé, the question probably deserves a serious answer. A .300 batting average for his career would seem to check off one milestone. His 2.375 hits are more than Barry Larkin, Alan Trammell and Jeff Bagwell, just to throw out a few names involved in Hall of Fame discussions during recent years.
But was Young ever considered one of the best at his position, one of the best players during the era in which he played? He wasn't even considered the best on his own team, playing with MVP-caliber talents like Alex Rodriguez, Josh Hamilton and Adrian Beltre throughout his Rangers career. Though Young led the AL in hits twice, won a batting title with a .331 average in 2005, and was a seven-time All-Star, he was never a factor in an AL MVP race.
Yet Young's career shouldn't be diminished by looking at it through a Hall of Fame lens. He also hit .300 or above in seven of nine seasons from 2003 to 2011. In five of those seasons, he batted higher than .310. During that nine-year stretch, Young hit .311 with an .819 OPS. His 27.6 WAR ranked him among the top 40 hitters in MLB. While he may never have been a superstar, what you'd call an impact player, he was a significant, consistent contributor to some very good Rangers teams.
Referring to Young as a "professional hitter" throughout his career might cause some eyes to roll among some analysts and commentators. Many writers, reporters and players touting Young's class as a ballplayer has really amped up the snark during the past four or five seasons. Over that time, the prevailing sentiment seems to be that Young receives more praise than he's due because of how he's perceived as a veteran leader, someone who quietly goes about his business on the field.
Young's supporters point to his willingness to switch positions for the good of the team. When the Rangers acquired Alfonso Soriano in 2004, Young offered to move from second base to shortstop. Advanced metrics show that he wasn't a good defensive shortstop, costing Texas 19 runs more than an average player at the position. He was even worse the following year, but improved over the next two seasons.
His Gold Glove at shortstop in 2008 became an example for many of how a player's offensive numbers can influence him winning a defensive award. According to FanGraphs' Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), Young was the AL's seventh-best defensive shortstop that season. But his .284 average was second at the position. (How Derek Jeter didn't win that season — when he had a higher average, OPS, WAR and UZR — is something of a mystery. Maybe the perception was that Young was due after playing capably at shortstop for four seasons.)
Young was asked to move to third base in 2009, clearing the way for Elvis Andrus — a far better defender and one of the Rangers' top prospects — at shortstop. Unlike his switch from second base five years earlier, however, Young wasn't making this move voluntarily. He was so upset by being booted from shortstop, in fact, that he requested a trade.
This is what fuels the eye-rolling when Young is referred to as a classy player always willing to do what's best for the team. Young had received a five-year, $80 million contract extension — setting the market for shortstops in MLB — but asked to be traded when the Rangers wanted him to switch positions. He eventually ceded, however, and had one of his best seasons, batting .322 with an .892 OPS, 22 homers and 68 RBI.
Though Young hit 21 homers with 91 RBI in 2010 and his defense at third base improved, his batting average, on-base and slugging percentages all dropped. That — along with the opportunity to add a star player to their lineup — may have been why the Rangers signed Beltre for the following season. WIth a MVP-caliber hitter and defensive standout at third base, that meant Young would have to switch positions again. And this time, he was even more outspoken against doing so than he was two years earlier.
Young again asked to be traded, telling Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal that he'd been "misled" and "manipulated" by the Rangers and general manager Jon Daniels. (Again, this is why Young's detractors are so snarky about him being "classy.") Maybe he looked at a lineup in which he didn't appear to have a position. Third base, second and shortstop were all spoken for, while Mitch Moreland was breaking in at second base and Mike Napoli appeared to be the favorite for designated hitter. Never mind that Young didn't want to be a DH.
Once again, Young eventually backed down and appeared in 159 games for the Rangers in 2011. Manager Ron Washington moved enough pieces around — and played Napoli enough at catcher — to get Young 689 plate appearances. Young responded with arguably his best season as a major leaguer, compiling a career-high .338 batting average and .380 on-base percentage, along with an .854 OPS, the third-best of his 14 MLB seasons. He also led the majors with 213 hits.
That was essentially Young's last stand with the Rangers. In 2012, his batting average dropped to .277 while his .682 OPS was the lowest of his career. Young also compiled the lowest WAR of his career at -1.6. Though he still split time at first base, third and second, Young was the team's primary DH. And if he wasn't hitting, Texas had other players who could fill that role. Young no longer had a position and wasn't producing enough for Washington to justify shuffling his lineup to accommodate his bat.
Before last season, Young was traded to the Phillies, who needed a starting third baseman and consistent right-handed bat. While he was awful defensively, according to UZR, and no longer the hitter he once was, Young still provided Philadelphia with some offense. That drew interest from the Dodgers, who acquired him for bench depth at third and first base during the team's September drive to the postseason. Young hit well enough during his limited time in Los Angeles that the Dodgers wanted him back for this season, hoping he would provide needed infield depth.
According to Rosenthal, Young had three offers from MLB clubs — obviously including the Dodgers — but wants to spend more time with his three sons. It's become a cliché for an athlete or public figure to say he's retiring to spend more time with his family. But Young told the Los Angeles Times' Dylan Hernandez that his children are the reason he wouldn't come back for a 15th season.
Despite the other two reported offers, it was apparently a decision between coming back to the Dodgers or being a family man for the Southern California native. We won't know whether or not Young would've won the starting second base job for the Dodgers. Who competes for that position now is a topic for another blog post.
Young likely saw a limited role with the Dodgers, especially if and when Guerrero shows he's capable of playing second base. Maybe he was willing to be a bench player for a couple of months, but not for an entire season. And if he wasn't going to play baseball, playing with his kids surely looked much more appealing. Young made the decision to retire before it was made for him, which is presumably what any professional athlete wants.