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Signed OF-R B.J. Upton to a five-year deal worth $75 million. [11/28]
No free agent receives more credit for his remaining upside than Upton does. Because of Upton’s athleticism and rare blend of power and speed, there are those who believe his best is yet to come. What is lost during those reveries is the fact that Upton is already a solid player, one capable of helping a competitive team win ballgames. The player’s future is a point of emphasis with any long-term contract. That’s why Upton might be the most polarizing player to sign so far this winter.
While Upton does have great physical gifts, leading to possible upside, there is potential downside to be found here as well. It sounds cliché, but while Upton has good-to-great tools, his baseball skills could use additional seasoning. The 28-year-old took steps toward sharpening those skills last season. He cut down on boneheaded plays, like throwing to the wrong base, in the field, yet he remains a work in progress in other areas. For example, the Rays had him go on the pitcher’s first move, rationalizing that it would take two good throws instead of one to nail Upton. While the instruction has paid off with good success rates, it also leaves Upton’s future as an efficient base stealer in doubt once his explosiveness wanes.
The rawness is noticeable at the plate as well. Upton flashes power and grace, but is susceptible to incompetence. His pitch recognition and bat-to-ball skills are suspect. There will be at-bats where Upton swings through a breaking ball early in the count before taking a fastball over the plate for strike three. Of course, there will be at-bats where Upton flashes great bat speed and winds up at third base on a triple.
Upton has tweaked his approach and stance more times than one can count, and you’re never certain if he’ll go to the plate disciplined and willing to walk, or aggressive and willing to chase. A strikeout is only marginally worse than any other brand of out, but those players with contact woes are worrisome over the long haul. If Upton is whiffing on nearly one-third of his swings now, when his physical abilities are at their finest, then how often will he whiff when his abilities begin to fade?
Any conversation about Upton is bound to include reference to motivational concerns. With a past that includes benching and a dugout confrontation over hustle-related incidents, it’s easy to think of Upton as a malcontent. But to Upton’s credit, those issues seem to be in the past. It proves difficult to watch Upton’s display of emotion during his final game with the Rays and walk away believing he is uncaring about the game. That attitude will suit him well heading forward, because his athletic tools and baseball skills are in a race to counterbalance.
The Braves will forfeit their first-round pick in exchange for signing Upton. The Rays, Upton’s old team, will receive a compensatory selection.