Upton Quieting His Critics

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Upton Quieting His Critics

Tampa Bay Rays center fielder B.J. Upton took a lot of heat this year. Upton, benched twice for a lack of hustle by manager Joe Maddon, drew the ire of many Tampa Bay fans for his seemingly lackadaisical approach to the game. As his performance has showed in the postseason, however, the Rays would not have made it to this point without him.

 

The road to stardom has taken longer than expected for Upton, a former infielder who was the premier prep player in the nation back in 2002. Years of switching positions—after several years of trying to stick at shortstop after getting drafted second overall back in ’02—may have set back his development offensively. He had moved around the diamond so many times, the St. Petersburg Times even featured a “Where’s B.J.? section in its sports page during spring training in 2007. Expected to fill a super utility role, similar to Chone Figgins, he finally found a home in center field after spending the first month of the season as the Rays’ full-time second baseman.

While the constant position shifting affected his offensive performance, Upton finally established himself as an impact offensive player at the major league level when he found a permanent home in center that May. At only 23 years old, he displayed an advanced approach at the plate and excellent on-base skills, batting .300/.386/.508, with 24 home runs, an .894 OPS and 82 RBIs. The speedster also swiped 22 bags, becoming one of the youngest players in history to join the 20-20 club.

In addition to his fine offensive season, Upton made strides in his outfield his defense as well. Using his tremendous athleticism, he quickly learned the nuances of the position on his way to emerging as one of the premier defensive outfielders in the American League.

Entering the spring training this March, the bar was then set high for Upton, who was expected to build upon his breakout campaign, hit for more power and emerge into an elite star. A shoulder injury, which went unreported until late August, prevented him from ever getting fully comfortable at the plate, however, and made it difficult for him to turn on any pitches thrown inside. His lack of power, combined with a few mental gaffes, made him an easy target for the boo birds at Tropicana Field—even though the Rays were enjoying their finest season in franchise history.

Perhaps if the critics knew about his shoulder problem sooner, Upton would not have been such a misguided favorite target for local talk radio hosts. It was fairly apparent that something was not right, as nearly all of his nine homers during the regular season were hit to the opposite field. He simply could not do anything with an inside pitch, yet his did not stop the talk show callers, and even hosts, from bashing his every move.

Although Upton did not replicate his 20-homer performance from ’07, though, he still had a fine, underappreciated season at the plate. In fact, most of the flack was not merited, despite what was said about him on ESPN. Outside of R.J. Anderson over at DraysBay, most writers considered his season a disappointment. In reality, he actually was one of the Rays’ most productive hitters in an offense that finished ranked in the middle of the pack in several important offensive categories. He batted only .273, but—due to his excellent ability to get on base, thus not making outs—his on-base percentage remained at a solid .383 clip and he led the club with 97 walks. His OPS dipped more than 100 points (.784), a clear result of his severe drop in slugging percentage due to the decrease in power production—only nine home runs.

Upton also improved his defense in center field, making out-of-range plays on a consistent basis. He simply glides out there, which enables him to roam the gaps with grace. His smoothness is sometimes mistaken for a lack of hustle, but there are not too many players who can man the position as effectively as him. The Rays made the jump from worst-to-first in team defensive efficiency—the rate at which batted balls hit into play are converted into outs—and his defensive contributions played a major role. Along with left fielder Carl Crawford and right fielder Gabe Gross, he anchored one of the majors’ strongest defensive outfield corps.

To some, though, none of this seemed to matter—until the Rays took down the Chicago White Sox in the Division Series, that is.

Upton, after an 0-for-5 showing in the opener, finally regained his power stroke, hitting three bombs (one-third of his season total) in the series. Sitting out on several BP sessions down the stretch, it turns out, helped him to regain some strength in his shoulder, and he finally felt comfortable enough at the plate to turn on the ball.

The Rays’ most valuable position player in the postseason, he continued to pull the inside pitch, make pitchers pay for making mistakes and produce for the Tampa Bay offense in a stellar performance in the American League Championship Series against the Boston Red Sox. Using his bat and legs, he was the key offensive contributor for a lineup that combined to slug .508 and hit 16 homers in the ALCS. While it is too small of a sample size to get too worked up about, he posted an impressive line of .321/.394/.786 and 1.180 OPS while blasting four homers in seven games against Boston to help lead the Rays to the World Series.

Upton has simply been in the thick of things for the Rays in nearly every postseason game. The youngest player to hit seven jacks in the playoffs, he is currently slugging .662, with a 1.000 OPS, 16 RBIs and six stolen bases in 16 games overall.

The player who was unfairly targeted has shown what he can do on the national stage. He has provided several key hits, made a number of sensational catches and gunned down several runners at the plate. His performance has been tremendous, in all facets of the game, as he has shown off all of the weapons in his toolbox. In fact, he is only two home runs away from passing Barry Bonds and Troy Glaus for the most long balls in a single postseason.

Upton is not going to lead the league in homers next year, as it is important not to get carried away with the sudden power surge. Failing to reach double digits in the category, however, was an aberration, and he should improve his power totals with a healthy shoulder—he is expected to have offseason surgery—in 2009. Combined with his excellent approach, discipline, on-base skills and speed, he is going to be a dynamic offensive force in a Rays uniform in ’09 and for years to come. Beating his younger brother, Arizona Diamondbacks outfielder Justin, to the 30-30 club is not out of the question, either. Not only that, it seems he is destined to add a few Gold Glove and Bill James Fielding Bible awards in the near future.

To put it bluntly, B.J. Upton has a chance to turn into one of the best all-around players in all of baseball. While he may be tough for the organization to lock up to a long-term deal like they did with Evan Longoria, he is perhaps the most important position player on the Rays.

So lay off of him already.

To reach Tyler Hissey, send an email to TylerHissey@gmail.com.

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