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Rays top prospects of all-time: No. 5

After 20 years of Rays baseball, we’re counting down the top prospects in franchise history.

Sporting News MLB Spring Training Collection
Melvin Upton Jr. looked like a future All-Star
Photo by Sporting News/Sporting News via Getty Images

The No. 5 prospect in Rays history made his debut at 19, didn’t return to the majors until he was 21, and had the best season of his career when he was 22.

20. SS Reid Brignac
19. RHP Matt White
18. RHP Chris Archer
17. RHP Wade Davis/LHP Jake McGee
16. RHP Jeremy Hellickson
15. 1B/LHP Brendan McKay
14. SS Tim Beckham
13. RHP Brent Honeywell
12. SS Willy Adames
11. OF Desmond Jennings
10. LHP Blake Snell
9. OF Wil Myers
8. LHP Scott Kazmir
7. 3B Evan Longoria
6. OF Rocco Baldelli

5. IF/OF Melvin Upton Jr.

Acquired: No. 2 pick by Devil Rays (2002)

Baseball America Top-100 ranks: 2 (2003), 21 (2002)
(Devil) Rays Top-30 ranks: 1 (2003), 3 (2002)
League Top-20 ranks: 1 (2003 South Atlantic League), 1 (2004 International League)

League best tools: Most exciting player (2004 International League), Best infield arm (2004 International League)

Upton had a fine career. When he was a prospect, he looked like the next big thing.

He only needed to play in 130 career games to be named the No. 2 prospect in baseball. Making his pro debut as an 18 year old, he started well with Class-A Charleston, batting .302 with a .394 on-base percentage and .445 slugging percentage with seven homers and 38 steals in 101 games. He wasn’t a raw, toolsy athlete who couldn’t actually play baseball. He had great physical gifts and knew how to use them on the diamond.

He was so impressive that he finished the season with Double-A Orlando. It’s rare for an 18 year old to skip a level like that and advance to Double A in his first professional season, but Upton did it. He was the second-youngest hitter in the Southern League that season. He didn’t have much in the way of extra-base hits, but he batted .276 with a .376 OBP and .757 OPS in 127 plate appearances.

It was projected that more power would eventually come. In Baseball America’s scouting report following the 2003 season ($), it was noted that his bat speed was “easily a 70” on the 20-80 scouting scale. He just needed to add strength, which is obviously not uncommon for teenagers playing professional baseball. His speed and arm strength were “close to 80”, and it was believed his hit and defense tools were plus as well.

The 2003 season was Upton’s pro debut because he didn’t sign until Sept. 2002, three months after he was drafted with the No. 2 pick. The team probably had no issue waiting because according to BA, he was the consensus best player in the draft thanks to his great tools, which BA compared to Derek Jeter’s. With the No. 1 pick, the Pirates opted for college pitcher Bryan Bullington.

In 2004, Upton continued his rapid ascent to the majors leagues. In 29 games with Montgomery, he batted .327 with a .878 OPS. With Triple-A Durham, he was even better. In 69 games, he slugged 12 home runs and 30 extra-base hits, stole 17 bases in 22 attempts, and batted .311 with a .411 OBP and .519 SLG.

With that great performance, he earned a promotion to the big leagues. He became the youngest player in franchise history when he made his debut on Aug. 2. He struck out too much, but as the youngest player in the league, he held his own. He batted .258 with a .324 OBP and .733 OPS with four homers and four steals in 45 games. He accumulated 177 plate appearances, losing his prospect eligibility.

However, his minor league development was not yet over. In fact, he spent the entire 2005 season in Triple A. He had to improve his defense. His great arm strength and range gave him the tools to play shortstop, but he still had to make the plays. In 2003, he committed 56 errors for a .901 fielding percentage. At three levels in 2004, he committed 42 errors.

His bat probably was ready for a full-time job in the majors. With the Bulls in 2005, he batted .303 with a .392 OBP and .490 SLG. He stole a career-high 44 bases and totaled 60 extra-base hits in 139 games, including 18 home runs. However, he committed 53 errors at shortstop. His all-around game was not yet ready for the majors.

In 2006, his stats at the plate declined, now in his third season spending significant time in Durham. Upton batted just .269 and only hit eight homers in 106 games. For the first time, he spent more than a handful of innings away from shortstop. He played 18 games at third base. While he still committed a lot of errors, it provided a path to the big leagues. After Aubrey Huff was traded to Houston in July, Upton returned to the majors in August, but he struggled. He batted .246 and slugged just .291.

The next season, he emerged as the team’s starting second baseman. He still committed a lot of errors, but with the way he was hitting, the team could deal with it. In 56 games before going on the disabled list, he looked like a future MVP, batting .320 with a .396 OBP and .545 SLG. He had 13 steals, nine homers, and 26 extra-base hits. He cooled off upon his return a month later, but he still finished with career highs in average, OBP, SLG, and OPS.

When he returned in July, he did so at a new defensive home — one he would make permanent. After playing a handful of games in center field early in the season, he began playing there on a full-time basis and has continued to do so since. In the outfield, he could roam gap to gap with his great athleticism, and it makes better use of his strong arm than second base.

While he settled in as a center fielder, he never hit quite that well again. When the Rays went to the World Series, he batted .273 with a .383 OBP, but his slugging percentage dropped 107 points. He stole a career-high 44 bases, but he also led the league by getting caught 16 times.

Maybe he was just saving his home runs for when the games mattered most. He homered three times in four games against the White Sox. In the ALCS against the Red Sox, he hit four home runs and drove in 11 runs.

Over the next eight seasons, Upton has batted just .232. Even in his great seasons in the minors, he struck out quite a bit, but it was manageable. After the 2008 season, he started swinging at pitches out of the zone more and more, and he started making less and less contact, even on pitches in the zone. He had three more seasons with 20 homers and had highlights like the first cycle in team history on Oct. 2, 2009. But after the 2007 season, he never quite put it all together in one season again.

Upton didn’t play in the majors in 2017, but he’ll be in camp with Cleveland trying to get back. He’s only 33 years old.