By STEVE KORNACKISpecial to FOXSportsDetroit.com
LAKELAND, Fla. -- Think of Delmon Young being to the Detroit Tigers what Robert Duvall was to The Natural and James Earl Jones was to Field of Dreams.
If this season were a movie, he would be a star in his own right, working as a supporting actor to the glamor duo of Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder. And when you have a player such as Young doing that, you have the opportunity for a blockbuster season.
Young has been perhaps the most dominant hitter in the Grapefruit League, and is challenging for the exhibition season Triple Crown with a .413 batting average, five home runs and 19 RBIs.
He looks good, feels good and is swinging good, said Tigers manager Jim Leyland. I think hes on a mission.
Add in the fact that Young will become a free agent for the first time after this season, and the urgency for a great year is a reality that cant be ignored -- even though Young chose to downplay that.
Every year is a contract year, said Young, who will be the designated hitter and play some in left field. Its no different than any other year. And free agency is determined by your track record. One year is not going to set you apart.
Young, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2003 draft by the Tampa Bay Rays, has had just one big season. He batted .298 with 46 doubles, 21 homers and 112 RBIs for the Twins in 2010, when he finished 10th in American League MVP voting.
Delmon is in great shape, Tigers catcher Alex Avila said. It looks like hes going to be the elite player he was in 2010. That would be exciting to see.
Detroits 2011 league MVP and Cy Young Award winner, Justin Verlander, also is extremely impressed.
Hes taken it to the next level, Verlander said. He worked his butt off and is realizing the fruits of his labor. Delmon might be one of the most over-looked pieces on the team. I hope he has a great year.
Young was slowed by oblique and ankle injuries last year with the Minnesota Twins, and batted just .266 with four homers and 32 RBIs in 84 games with them. He hit .274 with eight homers and 32 RBIs in 40 games with the Tigers.
He was hurt some last year, Leyland said. And by the time we got him, he was healthy. And it normally energizes a guy to get thrown in the fire of another pennant race.
Young said he treats games the same, regardless of where his team is in the standings. On the injuries, he said, I had bone spurs in my ankles and the oblique. When I got healthy, I got comfortable. And in the second half of the season, I came on.
He was a beast in the postseason. Young hit three homers and batted .316 in Detroits playoff triumph over the New York Yankees, who had twice eliminated his Twins from the postseason.
Was it rewarding to end the frustration with the Yankees?
It was a frustration for the Twins, not the Tigers, said Young, alluding to Detroit also beating the Yankees in the 2006 playoffs.
He followed up with two homers in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series against the Texas Rangers, but a left oblique injury tweaked against the Yankees kept him out of two of the six games and he batted only .133.
The Tigers knew Young about as well as you can know any player who comes over in a trade. He played 18 games against them every year for the Central Division rival Twins before they traded him on Aug. 15 for a pair of minor-league pitchers, Cole Nelson and Lester Oliveros.
He went from the Twins clubhouse to Detroits the day that trade was announced at Comerica Park. The talented opponent was handed a uniform and cap with the Olde English D and then homered in his first at-bat for the Tigers.
Young hit .300 or better against Tigers starters Doug Fister, Rick Porcello and Max Scherzer, but was just .200 against Verlander in 30 at-bats.
Delmons an aggressive hitter, Verlander said, and so you need to make your pitches to him early in the count.
Avila added, Hes a heck of a baseball player, and just a pure hitter -- a born hitter.
Young said there wasnt much to learn about his new teammates because of the frequency with which he faced them. He said having his brother, Dmitri, playing for Detroit when he came up as a rookie with Tampa Bay made him that much more familiar with the Tigers.
I knew what they were all about when I came over here, Young said. I even train with (Brennan) Boesch in the offseason.
Both players grew up and still live outside Los Angeles.
Boesch will bat behind leadoff hitter Austin Jackson. Then come Cabrera and Fielder before Young, so Young will have two of the most productive hitters in the game getting on base before he leaves the on-deck circle.
Your numbers will be there at the end of the year, Young said, and those are the ones that go on your baseball card. I dont worry about that.
Our goal is to win the division and take care of business after that.
Audy Ciriaco doesnt have a chance to make the Tigers, but the talented third-base prospect has made an impression.
His ninth-inning single tied Fridays game at Bradenton with the Pittsburgh Pirates, and hes been batting over .300.
Hes a young prospect, not old, Leyland said. Hes strong and gets better. Hes one of those players people forget about, and all of a sudden he shows up in the big leagues.
Ciriaco, 24, batted .277 with 23 doubles, eight triples, five homers and 55 RBIs last year for Double-A Erie. He has hit .110 in 82 at-bats with Triple-A Toledo. But with Cabrera ahead of him and Toledo needing to be conquered, he remains one step away from the majors.
Leyland has a hunch, though, and that should not be discounted.
One year OK with Leyland
Leyland was asked about the one-year contract he received for 2012 and noted that he still likes it.
I dont want to be in anyones hair if they want to make a change, he said. And if I wanted to end it at the end of this season, I can do it with no strings attached.
On his watch with the Tigers, for whom he has gone 519-454 with an American League pennant in 2006 and a Central Division championship in 2011:
Im very proud of it ... Weve done a good job, and Ill take that to my grave.