When I selected B.J. Upton with my most recent draft pick in the BP Kings league, I got a strange sense of déjà vu. And first I assumed that this was because this had been about the fifth round in a row where the player I was hoping to take (in this case, Eric Gagne) had been selected just ahead of me. But upon reflection, I decided that there was something deeper going on. B.J. Upton reminds me of Gary Sheffield.
The parallels are good but not perfect. Upton is taller and has a little bit more speed; Sheffield was broader and had a little bit more power. But both were highly-regarded amateurs who were drafted as shortstops. Both had to endure a lot of defensive struggles. Both reached the majors early but then hit a bump in the road — Sheffield spent a lot of time on the DL and Upton spent a lot of time in Durham.
Both were accused of having attitude problems. In all probability, both of them damn well did have attitude problems, because when you’re a 21-year-old kid and something like baseball that always has come very easily for you suddenly becomes very difficult, the first person you blame is probably not going to be yourself.
Sheffield, in fact, was accused of tanking during his 1991 season in Milwaukee in order to get himself traded (which he “succeeded” in doing the next season, to the Padres). I don’t know whether Sheffield tanked, but here’s the parallel: when you have a young, talented baseball player who is unhappy and has some growing up to do and is being told five different things about his future from five different people, you can’t necessarily take the stats at face value.
B.J. Upton posted a .293 EqA at Durham as a 19-year old, and a .286 EqA at Durham as a 20-year old and a .272 EqA at Durham last year as a 21-year-old … that isn’t a normal progression. I don’t think that B.J. Upton is tanking, but I do think he’s pretty well sick of being in Durham, North Carolina. The effort might not really be there, especially on the offensive side since the D-Rays are looking mainly at how he progresses with the glove. And so you get into this sort of vicious cycle: the disconnect in expectations between the player and his major league club creates frustration, which creates an underwhelming performance, which widens the disconnect, which creates more frustration, and so forth.
It would seem that there is no way out. Except that, with this sort of talent, there usually is. Sheffield found himself when he was traded. The Devil Rays have a plan to quite literally let Upton find himself — by letting him play several positions this season and seeing where he feels most comfortable. It has a better chance of working than you’d think.