It feels good to get that off my chest.
Welcome to the first BJ Upton Apologist Anonymous (BJAA) meeting everyone. I look around the room and see most of the guys at DRaysBay here today and expected Jonah Keri to be here, but he is reliving the glory days of the Montreal Expos today and could not make the meeting.
I will share my own story about my struggles with Upton and then let you share yours in the comments section. I first started consuming Upton in 2003 when I got to see him play in the Southern League as a member of the Orlando Rays. Back then, I was going through a rough patch in my life as a Devil Rays fan and needed something to get me through the baseball season so I would sneak off to the Disney area to get my fix. I would watch Jonny Gomes hit towering shots over the scoreboard in left-center field, watch Matt Diaz hit .383 for the club in 227 at bats, watch a young and skinny Jorge Cantu hit .215 with a .594 OPS, and watch Joey Gathright fly down the line every time he put the ball in play. Yet, I always fell back on my favorite, Upton. He only played 29 games that season at age 18 after being promoted from Low A straight to AA but he was something special even back then. The Devil Rays knew it too because by the end of the 2004 season, he was in the majors and by then, I was a full-blown addict. Did the front office screw up by skipping him over so many minor league levels? Possibly, but if they thought they had the next Ken Griffey Jr on their hands, who could blame them?
Upton got 159 at bats in the majors in 2004 and hit .258/.324/.409 as a 19 year old kid striking out three times for every one time he walked. Yet, for some reason, as quickly as Upton was rushed to the majors, he was quickly rushed back to the minor leagues. Actually, the reason was not that disturbing at all because it was a clear move to save some money for him to slow his service time and prevent him from being another Miguel Cabrera situation like the Marlins had when they had to move him to Detroit at of 24 because they could no longer afford him. While the Devil Rays suffered loss after loss in 2005 and 2006, I was forced to get my Upton fixes from highlight films in Durham where he put up two very solid seasons and had memorable moments such as this one, and this one (eat your heart out, Derek Jeter):
In 2007, the Devil Rays finally decided Upton had aged enough to call him back up to the big leagues and in a miserable season that most people remember Carlos Pena breaking out for 46 homers in, Upton hit .300/.386/.508 in 474 at bats and went 20-20 with 24 homers and 22 steals. All that did was make me a full blown addict and I did nothing to hide my habit. I drafted him in fantasy leagues, I pumped up his attributes on my X-Box games to make him the Black Jesus of Baseball, and life was good – or so I thought.
In 2008, Upton hurt his shoulder and his recipe for success suffered, greatly. I found myself wanting more as I watched a shell of Upton limp through the second half of the 2008 season at the plate while the rest of the team soared to the top of the AL East. Then, magically, the old Upton came back just in time to practically carry the Rays through the American League playoffs. He hit .304/.373/.826 in the AL playoffs which included seven home runs in 46 at bats which nearly matched his nine home runs from the regular season in 531 at bats. After his playoff appearance, expectations for 2009 were right back to where they were in 2007 despite the fact Upton had off-season shoulder surgery. As somone who has had the same surgery Upton had done, twice, I understood what he was going through so I knew I was going to have to cut back on my Upton habit. Upton’s power in 2009 was a replica of the 2008 regular season, but he walked less and struck out a little more despite repeating a 40 steal season and playing great defense. In 2008, despite the struggles, he was worth 4.6 wins but in 2009, that number plummeted to 2.1 wins.
2010 has not been much different. Despite the fact he is on pace to exceed his numbers from 2009, many fans have dropped the habit. In our reader poll, Upton was voted the most disappointing player despite the fact Jason Bartlett and Ben Zobrist are well off their 2009 paces and he was lambasted by local and national media over the (admittedly) lazy play a few weeks ago. Ironically, only us Upton addicts were quick to point out it was Upton who was busting ass to back up Ben Zobrist in Baltimore earlier this week when Zobrist made two sub-par efforts on flyballs to the gap.
At this stage in my life, I have been an Upton addict for nearly eight years. It has not yet cost me my family and in fact, it has gotten me more work. Yet, how much longer should I allow myself to be consumed by Upton’s potential? Is he what he is, or can he better? He is turning 26 years old in less than a month so he is just now entering his statistical prime as a player. It very well could be that the shoulder surgery that set him back in 2008 and 2009 took some of that power that was the vintage Upton we saw in 2007 and in the 2008 post-season so is this new four-tool version worth my loyalty? After all, this new version could go one of two ways. Upton could become another Johnny Damon (with a much better arm) that gets on base and covers a lot of ground, or he could go the route of Corey Patterson and continue to tease with his tools while disappointing with is production.
At age 24, Upton, Patterson, and Damon were nearly identical in their offensive production as players but it was that age 25 year where each took a different path. Damon took his career in Kansas City to the next level while Patterson began his descent into obscurity that he has never really recovered from. In 2010, Upton finds himself sitting square in the middle of the two paths that Damon and Patterson trail blazed for him years ago.
I know most outside this room are going to say Upton is going down the Patterson path but having been an Upton addict for this long, I think you know which path I think he will go down. He is still one of the best collections of talent that this organization has ever seen and I refuse to believe that we have seen the best baseball B.J. Upton has to offer and that his best is yet to come. I just hope that he stays in Tampa Bay to do it for at least the next few seasons. That is my confession – what is yours?