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.
"I feel for a lot of guys now that I've been through that and missed a lot of time with a major injury. Last year was kind of a get-back-into-it year because I wasn't able to do much in the offseason. I was stuck in a cast and a boot, my foot elevated for a couple months. I didn't get cleared to walk until January, didn't get cleared to throw until February, didn't get cleared to swing until March, didn't get cleared to run until March. I was really behind last year, and I didn't really start feeling good until this offseason."
Physically, Young said he feels as good as he has in years. He came into camp in good shape. When he signed in January, he weighed 223 pounds. His deal with the Phillies included $600,000 of weight-related incentives, but Young said that was the easiest money he's ever made. He made $100,000 each time he made a certain weight — the first three times being 230 pounds or under, the last three times at 235 or less.
"Delmon Young has shown me a lot," Orioles hitting coach Jim Presley said. "He is in great shape. He's got himself in probably the best shape of his life. I think he has had to come in here and prove some things, and I think he has done that. He has swung the bat really well. Defensively, he is not that bad. I really like the way he throws. I really like the way he positions himself. He is a veteran, he knows what he is doing, and he's really shown he can swing the bat against left-handers.
Young started this spring just 4-for-24 — going through a 1-for-19 stretch at one point — but he is 10-for-21 with three doubles and a home run over his last seven games heading into Thursday night's Grapefruit League finale.
"I never really saw a point where he was struggling, maybe statistically with someone who keeps up with batting averages," Showalter said. "I know one day he hit three balls on the button. It's what we hoped would happen."
In Wednesday night's split-squad game against the Rays, he was 2-for-3 with two RBIs. But his greatest contribution might have been a sliding catch he made between two other fielders behind third base that saved two runs.
"He's had a really good spring," Showalter said. "He's in really good shape. …You see a guy who was picked No. 1, and you get an impression, and then all of a sudden, you're around him and you see the total package. He's only 28."
Young also appears to have put his discipline issues behind him.
In the minor leagues, he received a 50-game suspension in 2006 when he flipped a bat that hit the home plate umpire following a third-strike call. He pled guilty last year to harassment for an incident in which he tackled a man and uttered an anti-Semitic slur in Manhattan in 2012.
As part of the plea deal, he reportedly did 10 hours of park cleanup in New York City and participated in a program with the city's Museum of Tolerance, where he spoke to a 73-year-old Holocaust survivor — an experience that he told the New York Daily News was "eye-opening." He also made an unlikely connection with a Detroit-area rabbi and developed a lasting friendship.
To Showalter, clubhouse chemistry is paramount. And when the Orioles signed Young, Showalter met with the player in his office and came away believing that Young would fit with the club.
And this spring, he's meshed well in the clubhouse.
Center fielder Adam Jones, who has known Young since they were both on the showcase circuit as Southern California high school prospects, even outlined the front of Young's spring locker with white tape and labeled it "Delmon's Area" as a good-natured joke.
"I saw him play in Tampa Bay. I saw him when he was young, him and [B.J.] Upton and those guys," Presley said. "And he's just matured. He knows what he needs to do. He's been around, he's been on playoff teams. He is a big asset for us. He really is."
twitter.com/EddieInTheYardCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun