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July 30, 2004

Can Of Corn

The Great Debate

by Dayn Perry

While waiting for something--anything--to unfold prior to Saturday's non-waiver trade deadline, let's indulge in the Grand Poobah of all prospect debates.

It's B.J. Upton of the Devil Rays vs. David Wright of the Mets.

Wright, as you're probably aware, was called up late on the evening of July 20 and installed as the Mets' starting third baseman. Although he's had some predictable fits and starts in his early days as a major leaguer, he's probably there to stay. As for Upton, the D-Rays have made noise about calling up Upton in early August.

While the Mets, as nominal contenders, can't be blamed for the aggressive call-up of a player they feel gives them the best chance to win right now, the Rays have little excuse for starting Upton's service-time clock so prematurely (if that in fact comes to pass). An entirely distinct concern, and one that's more mundane and selfish, is that if Wright and Upton do in fact exhaust their prospect status, we at BP might miss out on a heady debate as to who should reach the pinnacle of the 2005 Top 50 Prospect List. As such, I thought I'd get my two cents out there now.

In the following stat tables, I'll use a few measures that may not be readily familiar by their abbreviations. PF is the park factor for the park in question. PA is plate appearances. UBB% is unintentional walks stated as a percentage of plate appearances, and AB/XBH is simply the number of at bats that passed between extra-base hits.

Let's look at the numbers level-by-level:


Rookie

Player       Age    PF    PA   Rates           UBB%    AB/XBH
-------------------------------------------------------------
Upton        DNP
Wright       18     985   138  .300/.391/.448  11.6    10.9

Upton signed too late in 2002 to see action in rookie ball, so he started off the next season in the Sally League. Wright, meanwhile, toiled in the Appy League after being selected with the 38th overall pick of the 2001 draft. As you can see, he fared well despite using wood for the first time. Wright batted .300, drew walks at a solid clip and showed some gap power.

Neither played short-season ball, so it's on to Low-A:


Player       Age    PF    PA   Rates           UBB%    AB/XBH
-------------------------------------------------------------
Upton        18     984   452  .302/.394/.445  12.6    11.0
Wright       19     NA    581  .266/.367/.401  12.7    11.5

Here we have a clear performance advantage for Upton. Despite being 20 months younger than Wright and making his pro debut in a full-season circuit (a rarity for a prep draftee), he out-hit Wright in most regards. The rate stats favor Upton, but Wright does post modest advantages in UBB% and AB/XBH. Still, given age and experience, it's impossible to argue against Upton's having the upper hand when the two are viewed as peers at this level.

Only Wright toiled in High-A:


Player       Age    PF    PA   Rates           UBB%    AB/XBH
-------------------------------------------------------------
Upton        DNP
Wright       20     1019  548  .270/.369/.459  12.2     8.3

Another good showing in terms of plate discipline, and a nice power spike for Wright. It's somewhat belied by the relatively modest SLG, but clocking an extra-base hit every 8.3 ABs is somewhat noteworthy. And he was young for the circuit.

Now to Double-A:


Player       Age    PF    PA   Rates           UBB%    AB/XBH
-------------------------------------------------------------
Upton        18-19  NA    243  .301/.391/.426  11.9    11.0
Wright       21     1060  272  .363/.467/.619  13.2     6.0

This, of course, is when David Wright became David Freaking Wright. The numbers are, well, indecorous. Despite being only 21, Wright utterly carpet-bombed the Eastern League. Binghamton is a hitter's park, but he thrived in every aspect of the game regardless of context. He batted .363 and still sported a lofty ISO of .256. His walk rate saw an uptick, and he smacked 37 extra-base hits in 60 games. When someone exhibits such prowess at age 21 and in his first taste of the high minors, take notice.

Of course, this is not to say Upton was any sort of slouch. Roughly half those numbers were put up last season, when he was still 18-years-old for much of the year. The walk rate is commendable, and he batted .301, but the power wasn't there. Still, Upton was leaps and bounds younger than his competitors, and in that context his performance is highly impressive. And don't forget that this is a shortstop we're talking about.

And finally Triple-A:


Player       Age    PF    PA   Rates           UBB%    AB/XBH
-------------------------------------------------------------
Upton        19     1017  298  .308/.413/.522  14.1    8.7
Wright       21     958   134  .298/.388/.579  11.2    7.1

Just because Wright didn't treat Triple-A pitching with the Stalinist contempt he showed Eastern League hurlers doesn't mean he was anything less than impressive. The numbers dropped across the board, but Wright dwelt in rarified air in terms of power numbers, and he still showed good plate discipline. Also notable is that his ISO actually jumped 25 points in the International League. In short, he did nothing to detract from his status as an uber-elite prospect.

But this is where Upton makes up the ground he lost to Wright in Double-A. He played in a more accommodating park than Wright did, but, again, despite being 20 months the junior of Wright, he showed outstanding patience at the plate and slugged more than .500 for the first time in his career.

The monthly splits for each player are also instructive. After a magma-hot start for Wright at Triple-A, he slumped to a line of .218/.333/.455 (still good peripheral skills, it's worth noting) prior to his call-up. Had IL pitchers made adjustments? Probably not to such a degree, but it does raise questions as to what kind of numbers Wright would've put up had he been allowed to cobble together more than 134 plate appearances at that level.

Upton also made an initial cannonball in Triple-A: in May, Upton hit a gaudy .352/.432/.648. After he dipped to .253/.383/.368 in June, concerns were raised that perhaps he wasn't ready for the level after all. But Upton rallied in July and threw up a line of .333/.431/.586. Consider those concerns quelled for the time being.

I'll stop short of calling Wright's astounding Double-A bestowals aberrant, but it does seem to be well north of his established level of ability. I'll never know this, but I wonder if Wright had been allowed to simmer a little longer in Triple-A, would Upton have wound up having the better numbers? I think so, based partly on monthly trends and partly on the nagging feeling that Wright's been a little over his head this season.

Upton, as mentioned, is 20 months younger than Wright, and his promotion schedule can charitably be described as ruthless. This is a prep draftee who spent no time in rookie or short-season ball. The organization skipped him over High-A entirely, had him in the high minors at age 18 and will likely promote him to the highest level before his 20th birthday. That he's been able to hit for average and show plate discipline at every stop, and even managed to cultivate a power stroke along the way, drops my jaw.

Upton does have defensive concerns (an error every two-and-a-half games this season and some occasionally clunky footwork), but so far the Rays are sticking with him at short. As well as he's handling the organization's hyperactive promotion of him through the system, the squandered chances to develop his glovework are troubling. He'll never be the defender at short that Wright is at third, but age-adjusted numbers suggest to me that Upton can have a higher offensive upside than Wright, regardless of positional context. If Upton can't handle short, then he tries second. If that doesn't work, he perhaps has the foot speed and work ethic to handle centerfield (though I suppose Rocco Baldelli might have something to say about that). In any event, he's got a two-spot buffer zone on the defensive spectrum before he reaches Wright's position.

As much as I like David Wright and think he has a fine chance to be the next Scott Rolen, B.J. Upton is the best prospect in baseball.

Related Content:  David Wright,  B.j. Upton,  The Call-up

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