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Deep Thoughts: B.J. Upton

There isn't a player in the Rays universe whose name when uttered sparks more debate than Melvin Emanuel Upton. Be it due to his offensive performance or off the field incidents and discussions among fans, there's no bigger lightning rod of controversy than Upton.

People are either firmly in his corner or squarely against him. As we saw this weekend, it can turn ugly. There doesn't seem to be a middle ground. So, what better player is there to continue our Deep Thoughts series with?

Just like we did last week with Dan Johnson, Steve and I will discuss a few questions facing Upton this season, as well as look at some over/under projections.

1. Is last seasons performance the best we can reasonably expect from Upton, or will he improve upon it?

2. Will this be Upton's last season in Tampa Bay? Will he even last the whole season?


Erik: As always, Marcel is pessimistic about a player, predicting decreased numbers across the board. I think the power increase was real. Upton increased his FB and LD percentages from 2009, resulting in more extra base hits than Carl Crawford. It wasn't as if his BABIP was extremely high like it was in 2007 or 2008. Yes, his O-Swing% jumped to a mind bogglingly high 25.3 so that's a concern, but he had a good season in doing so. If he can get it back in the 15%-19% range the 30% K rate will fall, resulting in more balls in play, which is good for a speed demon like Upton. The inability to hit a good fastball from a RHP is still a concern, though...

Steve: I definitely agree with you Erik: I think Upton's Marcels is a very pessimistic projection for him. That not a knock against the projection system, as it's still very accurate overall despite being so simple, but it's evaluating Upton using a weighted average of his past three seasons...and we know how many issues he had in 2009 and 2008. Call me a sucker, but I think Upton is a much better player now than he was back then - both because of his shoulder health and the work he's done on his mechanics - and I'm expecting him to have another season similar to 2010. In fact, I'll go one step further: I think he's got a very good chance to meet or exceed his Bill James projection.

I'm not expecting Upton to break out, per se, but there are reasons to expect him to improve incrementally upon his performance last season. He's entering his physical prime (going to be 26 this season, turning 27 in August) and it seems as though his hard work on his mechanics has paid off. He was hitting the ball to all fields with authority last season, and he had his highest power numbers since 2007 (.187 ISO). It does look like he's always going to have a problem with strikeouts - and therefore, he'll always have a low batting average - but he'll still walk at a high rate (11% last season) and steal a large number of bases at a high success rate. It's a very odd set of skills, that's for sure; you don't find many elite defensive centerfielders that steal 40 bases, strike out 150 times, and hit 15-20 homeruns.

If Upton could have an even better season this year than he had in 2010, well, that'd be a really nice boost for the Rays.

Erik: We can all have that hope, and Upton does lend himself to such optimism. But then I read something like Matthew Berry's latest column and see how perception can be manipulated. Berry compares Player A and Player B, listing some negatives for Player A and positives for Player B. Player A's average and hits have declined the past three seasons, he's a speedster who had a career low in GB% last year, and has had major shoulder surgery, etc. While Player B is in the top 10 in steals over the past three years, his home runs have gone up every year since 2008, and all of his peripheral stats increased from '09 to '10. Player A and Player B are both B.J. Upton.

I know most every set of statistics can be twisted to fit one's own agenda, but reading things like that make me pause a bit. The fan boy in me reallllly wants to believe Upton can outperform his 2010 and have the type of season everyone has been expecting - excluding 2007. But the realist in me thinks 2010 is probably the peak of his abilities. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

He's been one of the only young Rays players from the 2007-2010 group to not sign an extension. He's instead been subsisting on a series of one year contracts. While he won't be a free agent until after the 2012 season, his value may never be higher than it is during this year. Do you see the Rays making a trade before the deadline or would a deal over the winter make the most sense?

Steve: I think the decision about when to trade Upton (because at this point, it's not a matter of if but when), comes down to three things: how Desmond Jennings does in Triple-A this season, how close to contention the Rays are around the trading deadline, and how the trade market shapes up. The Rays aren't afraid to sit on a player if they feel they can get a better deal later on, and if they don't get overwhelmed by something at the trade deadline, they'll keep Upton and deal him next off season. At the same time, if Jennings explodes down in Triple-A or a team makes an aggressive proposal for Upton, I could see the Rays jumping on the trade. 

My best guess is that Upton remains a Ray all season and then gets traded next off season. In season trades are difficult to make, and there's no rush to trade Upton like there was with Scott Kazmir (who was apparently being held together with duct tape and spit). It's all about maximizing your return and Friedman has almost always waited until the off season to pull off his major trades. And anyway, there's very little risk in holding onto Upton: he's a better player than Jennings in this upcoming season and even if he simply repeats last year's performance, he'll only increase his trade value.

But make no mistake: Upton won't start the 2012 season with the Rays. He's a solid, undervalued player, but he's becoming too expensive and the Rays will want to turn him into young talent instead of losing him to free agency.

Okay, random prediction time: what do you think Upton is more likely to do in 2011 - steal 50+ bases or hit 20+ homeruns?

Erik: I agree that he's more likely to be traded after the season, it isn't like the Rays are lacking in centerfield options even without considering Jennings. Ben Zobrist can play there, and so can Sean Rodriguez.

As far as the 50+SB or 20+HR goes, I'll take the 20 home runs. He hit 18 last year so it isn't out of the question, plus while he has stolen 42 bases each of the past two seasons he's also been caught stealing 23 times over that time. I think both are possibilities, but the gambler in me would bet on the 20 homers.

Steve: While I'm sure Zobrist and Rodriguez could play centerfield in a pinch, I'd really prefer to not have to witness that for a full half season. Zobrist's outstanding defense in the corner outfield spots suggests he could make an average centerfielder, but his exposure out there last season didn't inspire confidence. Personally, if Upton is traded, I hope the Rays just bring up Jennings and don't try messing around with other options. 

I also think Upton could hit over 20 homeruns, but I wouldn't be surprised in the least if he stole 50 bases this season. He's stated this spring that it's something he'd like to do, and he's been very successful in his attempts (82% success rate last year). He'll have to start running more frequently and in less optimal situations, so that success rate will drop, but I think he could still steal 50 bases and stay above a 70% success rate. Of course, if he's not hitting leadoff against left-handed pitchers this season, will he get the opportunities?

Today's deep thought*:

"I bet the main reason the police keep people away from a plane crash is they don't want anybody walking in and lying down in the crash stuff, then, when somebody comes up, act like they just woke up and go, "What was THAT?!"