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August 7, 2003

Prospecting

B.J. Upton

by David Cameron

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Main Entry: sav•ior
1 : one that saves from danger or destruction
2 : one who brings salvation

If you live in Tampa (or root for the Devil Rays from some far away land), odds are that you have appealed to Merriam-Webster to add a third definition to the book: B.J. Upton. Few organizations have seen more danger and destruction than Tampa Bay over the past six seasons. No team could justify their need of salvation more. Indeed, at the ripe age of 18, the hopes of an entire retirement community have been pinned upon the shoulders of Melvin Emanuel Upton. (Yes, his middle name is Emanuel. Irony is great).

Upton was chosen second overall in the 2002 June draft after the Pirates went conservative with college pitcher Bryan Bullington. Everyone agreed that Upton was the best player available, and he received accolades along the lines of Derek Jeter, Barry Larkin, and Alex Rodriguez. Upton acknowledged the Jeter comparison himself, explaining that he would like to "eventually be even better." After a summer-long session of negotiations, Upton signed with the Devil Rays for $4.6 million, but did not make his professional debut until this spring.

Always known for their aggressiveness in promoting prospects, Tampa started Upton as the third youngest player in the South Atlantic League. Last week, the aggressiveness went into overdrive as the Rays promoted him past High-A Bakersfield, sending him to directly to Double-A Orlando three weeks before his 19th birthday. I asked Director of Player Personnel Cam Bonifay about the move: "With B.J.'s strike zone judgment, he has proven to us that he was ready for a challenge, and we felt that Orlando was the most logical place to put him at this point." The current belief, though Bonifay would not confirm it, is that the move was made to allow Upton to participate in the Arizona Fall League after the season ends.

Is this move too aggressive? Perhaps, though Upton was a step ahead of everyone in low-A ball. His line in Charleston:


BA    OBP   SLG   AB    H     2B   3B   HR   BB   K   SB   CS
.302  .394  .445  384   116   22   6    7    58   80  38   17

That was good enough for a .322 EqA (.213MjEqA), and Upton ranked number one in the league in Runs Above Replacement Player. The average shortstop in the SAL hit just .226/.309/.303 this year, while the average hitter posted a .247/.328/.358 line. Charleston's park is as neutral as they come, and Upton was clearly a notch above on his own merits.

For comparison, here are the first two minor league seasons for Derek Jeter, the shortstop Upton is most often compared to. Jeter's birthday was June 26th, 1974, making 1992 his official "age 18" season, but he was 18 for much of 1993 as well, so that year may be a better comparison for what we have seen from Upton 10 years later.


Year (Level)    BA    OBP   SLG   AB    H    XBH   BB   K    SB   CS
1992 (Rookie)  .202  .296  .312   173   35   13    19   36    2    2
1993 (SAL)     .295  .376  .394   515   152  30    58   95   18    9

Suffice to say, they weren't planning Derek Jeter bobblehead doll giveaways in Yankee Stadium after the 1992 season. Jeter's first full season in 1993, also in the Sally League, looks similar, if a bit less impressive, than what Upton has provided. While the batting average and on-base percentages are similar, Upton wins the battle of component stats. His walk rate was higher, strikeout rate lower, and he knocked extra-base hits at a far superior rate. Upton also stole twice as many bases while maintaining the same percentage of efficiency.

Statistically, it is hard to draw any conclusions about Upton other than "he is really good," and his historical comparisons are nearly all favorable. How does Upton rate in person? I'm glad you asked.

I got a chance to see Upton a few weeks ago, just days before he began the red-hot streak that got him promoted. The first thing you notice is his build; he is extremely thin, defining the word lanky, and looks more like a distance runner than a baseball player. He is going to fill out in the next few years, and that should help his strength more than enough to compensate for any speed he may lose. Getting bigger will be a positive for Upton.

Once you get past the appearance, two outstanding tools are obvious: his speed and his arm. Upton runs like a track star, gliding easily and making it look effortless as he turns in 3.9 home-to-first times. He doesn't explode off the bag (and was thrown out stealing in his only attempt), but that can be taught. His arm, however, is not something you can teach. He possesses a cannon along the lines of Rafael Furcal. On routine throws from short, the most often word heard in the stands was "Wow!" His arm has few peers strength-wise, but is also the main cause of his 43 errors. He still rushes throws unnecessarily, leading to wild near-death experiences for runners unfortunate enough to be in the baseline. Nearly every young shortstop makes an obscene amount of errors, and Bonifay told me that they "are confident that experience will solve those issues. He has all the makings of a great major league defender."

It was just one game, but I am not sure I would go that far. His reactions to batted balls were average and his footwork could use improvement. His range was solid and his arm is impressive, but I would hold off on reserving the Gold Glove just yet. His two strongest tools are also the ones that are most overvalued, leading me to believe that some of his hype may be overboard. Upton has some work to do in the field before he becomes an asset defensively.

At the plate, Upton understands his strengths and plays to them. He has a bit of a chop in his swing, driving balls into the ground, rather than the natural lift you see from most hitters. It allows him to maximize his speed, but also cuts down on his chances to drive the ball into the gaps. As he gains strength, his swing will adjust, but there could be an extended period of struggles while he adapts to a new philosophy and lowers his groundball-to-flyball ratio. He showed solid pitch recognition, staying back on curveballs and not attempting to pull them. His bat speed was average, however, and he could be vulnerable to inside pitches until he adds more muscle.

Upton has some work to do at the plate, and I wouldn't be surprised if the advanced pitching of Double-A proved to be too much for him right now. The potential is there, but it is still just potential. There are plenty of flaws in his game that need correcting. None of them are career threatening, but they would make it nearly impossible for him to contribute to a major league team in the near future. The talk of Upton competing for a starting job in the spring of 2004 should remain just that, because this savior has a lot more learning to do.

The hype around Upton has rivaled that of former phenom Josh Hamilton, who was also anointed savior of the Devil Rays as a teenager. Hamilton's tale, and seemingly unhappy ending, should be one of caution, and for Upton's sake, let's hope that the Rays learned something from Hamilton's situation. To pin the hopes of a franchise on one player is unfair; to stake the future on an 18-year-old is unrealistic and misguided. B.J. Upton is a fine natural talent whose performance has lived up to expectations, but he won't be ready to help the Devil Rays win baseball games for several years. For the sake of the fans in Tampa, let Upton learn at his own pace. Don't make them pin their hopes on another teenage savior.

Related Content:  B.j. Upton,  The Atlantic

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