Young ready for next challenge

DETROIT -- Tampa Bay prospect Delmon Young, the scourge of the Southern League, put on a punishing display of power during batting practice Sunday at the All-Star Futures Game. He hit balls out to right field at Comerica Park, and when he tired of that, he pulled them over the fence in left-center.

"If you hit it good here, it's gonna go," said Young, oblivious to the 420-foot sign in center field and the spacious gaps that have frustrated dozens of hitters since the park's inception.

The scouts seated in the Comerica Park stands watched the kid pound the ball and thought, "Real deal." So did Milwaukee general manager Doug Melvin, who had seen this all before.

In 2003, the Brewers were picking second in the draft behind Tampa Bay, and they invited Young and Southern University second baseman Rickie Weeks to town for individual workouts. While Weeks was impressive, Young was otherworldly. He hit a ball off the center-field scoreboard, drove a couple more in the direction of the Bernie Brewer slide, and made enough noise that several Brewers -- including slugger Richie Sexson -- popped out of the clubhouse for a look.

When it came time to vacate the batter's box, Young refused.

"He told us, 'I still haven't hit one into the second deck in right field,' " Melvin recalled. "So he stayed in there and took like five more swings. And the next thing you knew, he hit one into the second deck."

Two years later, Young is a frightening amalgam of power, bat control and polish in a batter's box. Which makes you wonder: How much longer will he remain a Montgomery Biscuit?

Even by the exacting standards of former No. 1 overall picks, Young is having an exceptional season. He's hitting .336 with 25 home runs and 71 RBI in 330 at-bats for Montgomery, and cutting a swath through the Southern League reminiscent of a teenage Andruw Jones, who tore it up in a cameo with Atlanta's Greenville farm club in 1996.

Young has 25 stolen bases as well, and a strong throwing arm in right field to make baserunners think. Except for an occasional bad route or mistake of aggression in the outfield, he has no discernible weaknesses. Yet he refrains from monitoring the daily box scores in Tampa or obsessing over a possible big-league callup, because life is easier that way.

"Whatever Tampa wants to do, it's in Tampa's hands," Young said. "I've never heard of a player-GM before."

Scouts and baseball front-office people are less resistant to lay on the hype or make daunting comparisons. Young has been described as Albert Belle without the attitude and Manny Ramirez with a better glove. His raw power is impressive enough, but it's doubly ominous when combined with bat control and a knowledge of the strike zone. Young might lunge at a breaking ball outside the zone, but the pitcher who tries to do it twice in the same at-bat is pushing his luck.

"It's real difficult for a 19-year-old kid to force anybody's hand, but if there is such a thing, it's Delmon Young," said Razor Shines, manager of the Southern League Birmingham Barons. "He's ready for a new challenge. Maybe it's Triple-A or the major leagues. I don't know which one. But he has conquered the Southern League."

Young gained a reputation as brash as a high schooler in Camarillo, Calif., when Tampa Bay chose him first overall and he predicted he would be in the majors within two years. The Devil Rays say that abrupt edge has begun to melt away, like the baby fat that Young carried in high school.

"It's not a malicious, arrogant sort of thing," said a Rays official. "It's more a cocky confidence. A lot of great athletes have a self-centeredness about them, and this kid is no different. But he's learning to be more aware of what's going on around him."

Young's background and support system ensure he'll be the type of player who will refrain from coasting. His father, Larry, a former U.S. Navy recruiter and current Delta Airlines pilot, taught his kids the value of hard work. And his older brother Dmitri, a veteran DH with the Tigers, is a natural sounding board.

During spring training this year, the Bradenton (Fla.) Herald recounted a conversation between the two brothers on the subject of hitting strategy.

"How do you hit a good split-finger?" Delmon asked Dmitri in a phone conversation during the 2004 season.

"You don't," Dmitri said. "Lay off it. Or they're going to keep throwing it, and you're going to be out every time."

The Devil Rays have reasons not to push Young too quickly. With another 100-loss season on the horizon, there's not much upside to having Young accrue service time which could put him "on the clock" toward salary arbitration and free agency. The Rays are stuck in terminal developmental mode with a manager, Lou Piniella, who is angry enough to gnaw a hole in the dugout railing most nights. It's not exactly the optimum spot to bring in a kid with so much promise.

For all the despair in Tampa, at least the outfield is in good shape. Carl Crawford has developed into a nice player in left, and Rocco Baldelli should be back from knee and elbow injuries to reclaim his center field spot next spring.

With Young ticketed for right field and Jonny Gomes and speedy Joey Gathright in the mix, Tampa Bay GM Chuck LaMar has lots of reasons to weigh offers for Aubrey Huff before the July 31 trade deadline.

The buzz these days is that Young will be joining B.J. Upton with Tampa Bay's Triple-A Durham affiliate very soon. If Young tears up the International League, the Rays will have a hard time not calling him up in September.

"Once he comes up, they'll probably wonder why they didn't call him up sooner," Shines said.

At the moment, the kid exudes a mix of youthful exuberance and California cool. In his first Futures Game at-bat, Young lined a shot up the middle for a single. After a groundout, he walked in his final appearance. Not a bad day considering the U.S. team mustered almost no offense in a 4-0 loss to the World squad.

On Monday, Dmitri comes into town and the brothers will do some bonding, although Delmon concedes he has no intention of bringing Detroit to its knees.

"I'm 19 years old," he said. "I can't really go anywhere."

His ultimate destination is 1,000 miles south of here, on the Gulf Coast of Florida. Once he arrives in the Show, he's not coming back.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN Insider. His book "License To Deal" has been published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.