Most baseball players who are seven-year veterans aren’t twenty-six years old. Yet B.J. Upton is. Upton has been in the show since he was nineteen years old. He’s also played five different positions during that span–including shortstop, second base, third base, left-field (just one game) and now center-field. Many people, the Tampa Bay Rays included, have questioned his concentration, yet no one has ever undermined his talent. This is why the recent trade rumors revolving around Upton are so interesting. How much is a power/speed-threat with a dynamite glove, who, even at a tender age, is technically a seasoned veteran, worth? The answer should be, “A lot.”
“A lot” is also what the Tampa Bay Rays have expected from the former 2002 second overall pick. Up until 2008, the Rays were cellar dwellers, only finishing above fifth place once (they finished fourth in 2004). B.J. was a big part of the Rays’ World Series appearance in 2008, where he often hit in the second, third, and sometimes even fourth slot. Mind you, he only hit nine home-runs that season–down from his mighty twenty-four the season before, but he stole a career-high forty-four bases to compensate.
In addition to his high-ceiling power at the plate and prowess on the base-paths, Upton has also become a steady glove in center-field. It didn’t come easy, however. Before finding a home in center, Upton owned a dismal -21.6 UZR/150 at second base, a -14.6 UZR/150 at third base, and a -33.5 UZR/150 at shortstop. In fact, defense was one of the main reasons Upton didn’t see the Major Leagues at all in 2005, and barely in 2006. Alas, after his first taste of center in 2007, where he posted a 7.0 UZR/150, Upton had finally found a permanent position. Since 2007, B.J. has sported an impressive 4.8 UZR/150 in 5,278.6 career innings in center. His best defensive season there was in 2008, when he owned a 8.4 UZR/150.
Upton has excelled in the power, speed, and defensive departments throughout his career, yet the toolsy ballplayer can’t find the consistency an elite player hones. Considering Upton is now four seasons removed from his illustrious 2007, it’s legitimate to question whether he’ll ever reclaim his past glory. So far in 2011, Upton has posted a .229/.310/.395 line with fifteen home-runs, fifty-two RBI, forty-seven runs, and twenty-three stolen bases in 394 plate appearances. Certainly not the best showing for the same player who owned a .300/.386/.508 line with twenty-four homeruns, eighty-two RBI, eighty-six runs, and twenty-two stolen bases in 2007, but sometimes surface statistics don’t tell the full-story.
Part of Upton’s problem is that he’s swinging at more pitches outside the strike zone than he used to. In fact, Upton has swung at 25.9% of non-strikes this season, whereas in 2008, his most “patient” season, he just swung at 15%. Not all is lost though. While Upton is becoming more of free-swinger, the good new is that his 10.5% walk rate is his best since 2008 (15.4 BB%) and his 4.23 HR/AB is his highest since 2007 (5% HR/AB). In addition, his low batting average could be traced to his unfortunate .273 BABIP. Essentially, if Upton can find a little more luck with the hits actually become hits, the streaky stud could be on-pace for combining his differently great 2007 and 2008 seasons.
Unlike big market teams like the New York Yankees or Boston Red Sox, the Rays simply cannot afford to continue waiting for Upton to realize his potential. The outfielder makes $4.825 million this season, and could potentially double that in arbitration during the off-season. This makes him an obvious trade candidate. Unfortunately for the Rays, it will be hard to point to either now semi-distant history and seemingly abstract peripherals in an attempt to acquire the top prospects a 2007-version of Upton would have garnered. Still, Upton’s upside and comparatively minimal salary will appeal enough to suitors at the deadline to properly re-stock the Rays farm system.
B.J. Upton has the potential to be a special player for the next six to eight seasons, and a prospective franchise knows a commodity like that is worth a lot.