ST. PETERSBURG, FL - SEPTEMBER 25: Outfielders Desmond Jennings #8, B.J. Upton #2 and Brandon Guyer #30 of the Tampa Bay Rays listen to the National Anthem just before the start of the game against the Toronto Blue Jays at Tropicana Field on September 25, 2011 in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)
Melvin "Bossman Junior" Upton was selected second in the 2002 MLB draft by the then Tampa Bay Devil Rays. It was a bit of a coup that he was available there as he was considered the top talent in the draft. In the wisdom that led to zero playoff appearances in his tenure, David Littlefield liked Bryan Bullington's ceiling as a "good number three pitcher" over the toolsy high school shortstop out of Norfolk, VA. After signing for the biggest bonus in the draft in September of that year, B.J. didn't see the field in a D-Rays uniform until the following season. Despite his lack of professional statistics, Baseball America ranked him as the 21st best prospect in their 2003 list speaking to his great tools and quiet confidence-he believed he could make it to the majors within 2 years.
Upton not only justified their ranking and faith by raking in A-ball and AA as an 18 year old shortstop (.297/.390/.431/.821 slash-line with 40 steals), but he also would end up justifying that quiet confidence Bill Ballew spoke to by appearing in his first big league game in 2004, his second season in the Devil Rays' organization. This quiet confidence-we'd surely call it "swag" now-along with his undeniable athleticism and lightening quick bat speed solidified him as my favorite young Devil Ray.
Throughout most of my history with the Devil Rays, I would get excited about a young player to see the league catch up to them, handled poorly, or a number of other failures that occur to a perennial 90-loss team. It started with chants of "Bub-Ba, Bub-ba" and continued with Jose Guillen's rocket arm. When we netted a former rookie of the year in Ben Grieve my misplaced hopes rose. After a 28-year old Randy Winn made the All-Star game, we traded him for a manager.
This time was different it seemed. There was a wave of former top picks rising through the system, and Upton had the most potential of them all as a shortstop who had all the makings to be a star. His defense was still raw at the position but the bat could seemingly play everywhere. Well after 48 games in the bigs in 2004, Upton would not come up in 2005 and did not play any shortstop when he came up in 2006 struggling at the plate. The highly touted prospect was seemingly struggling. His 2006 in AAA was worse than 2005 there, which in turn was worse than his 2004 there.
2007 was a different story. He struggled to find a home defensively, but he had a great year at the plate. He joined the 20/20 club in less than 130 games while posting a .300/.386/.508/.894 line. He posted his first four-win season (4.5 fWAR and 4.7 bWAR). He looked like he may have found a home in center field with his ability to cover a lot of ground with a canon for an arm. Things were again looking bright for Bossman Junior and his teammates. Then 2008 happened.
This was my first great summer of baseball. Out of seemingly nowhere, a franchise that had never before won 75 games showed its fanbase what it was like to be competitive all year. Unfortunately for Upton, a torn labrum suffered in May sapped his power and seemingly caused a big step back in his power from the year before. It was fine, though, as the team was winning; but this was the beginning of question about Upton's character. Benched twice in August by Joe Maddon, when the team was battling for a playoff spot, Upton's quiet confidence was characterized as sullen disinterest. Coupled with is struggles at the plate, some fans questioned his commitment to the team. Could he handle the spotlight that came with playing meaningful baseball? Upton's answer solidified his spot as my favorite player to don a Devil Rays' uniform in October of 2008.
BJ hit 3 home runs in the first series against the White Sox and 4 more in the ALCS against Boston. He was phenomenal in both series, and then had one of the most memorable moments of the playoffs in Philadelphia during the World Series. With the Rays down in the series 3-1 and facing elimination, a torrential downpour threatened to wash the Rays out early as they were down a run. Upton came up and seemingly willed his team to play another day.
Despite the heroics in 2008, the questions continued. He has never repeated his phenomenal 2007 at the plate, and some critics venture to call him a "bust" or argue that he has not lived up to expectations. The funny thing about that is that he has. In what is likely to be his final year as a Ray, Upton comes in as one of the five best center fielders since he moved to the position in 2007 (3rd in bWAR and 4th in fWAR of all players who have 75% of their starts in CF). Has he won an MVP? Has he been the best player on a team that's made the playoffs 3 of his 5 full major league seasons (a franchise with 0 appearances in its previous 9 seasons)? The answer to both of those questions is no. He has been at least a 4-win player in every season he's played more than 120 games but one. He has made some great plays in center field tracking down balls no one would expect him to get to. He has had one of the greatest clutch runs in baseball history. He has been my favorite player on my favorite team, and for that I thank him. While this may be his last season in the Bay Area, I hope it's his best as this is a team that could make a lot of noise if Upton ever does live up to any unrealized potential people still hold out hope for.