Looking at his numbers without knowing how physically gifted he is, the Braves signing B.J. Upton to a 5-year, $75.25 million contract would be viewed somewhere between an overreach and lunacy. Upton’s offensive production has steadily declined from his best overall season—his first full year in the big leagues—in 2007 to what has now become a 28-year-old question mark.
Upton’s entire career has been based on talent and not results. He was the second player selected in the 2002 amateur draft; in 2004, he was in the big leagues at 19 before going back to the minors for most of 2005 and 2006; he looked to be a burgeoning star in 2007 with 24 homers, 22 stolen bases, and an .894 OPS; and throughout has been an aggravating player and person with bursts of brilliance and extended periods of inconsistency and laziness. At times, Upton doesn’t behave as if he even wants to play, let alone play hard.
In 2012, his free agent season, he hit a career high 28 homers and was clearly trying to hit more homers—not that that’s always a good thing. His OPS has been stagnant in the mid .700s since 2010, he strikes out 160 times a year, and his walks have severely diminished since posting 97 in 2008. When sufficiently motivated, he’s a great defensive center fielder, but one of his signature moments of being B.J. Upton occurred in June of 2010 when he lackadaisically pursued a line drive in the gap and Evan Longoria confronted him in the dugout nearly initiating a fistfight.
In addition to that incident, he was benched or pulled several times by manager Joe Maddon for such transgressions and chose not to run hard on a double play ball in the 2008 World Series. If he’s not going to run out grounders in the World Series, when is he going to run them out?
The petulance and sour faces are unlikely to be assuaged by his paycheck and the mere act of putting on a Braves uniform, but that’s undoubtedly what they’re expecting. When thinking about Upton and predicting the future, I’m reminded of the Braves acquisition of Kenny Lofton from the Indians after the 1996 season. The Indians dealt Lofton away because he was a pending free agent after 1997, wanted a lot of money the Indians wouldn’t be able to pay, and the club didn’t want to let him leave for nothing as they did with Albert Belle.
Lofton did not fit in with the corporate, professional, and somewhat stuck-up Braves of the 1990s and was allowed to leave after the season where he, ironically, returned to the Indians for a reasonable contract. Lofton was a far better player than Upton is and wasn’t known for a lack of hustle. He was just outspoken and got on the nerves of managers and teammates who didn’t know him well.
Will Upton be motivated to live up to the contract or will he be content now that he’s getting paid? Will being a member of the Braves inspire him to act more professionally? The Braves certainly aren’t the frat house that the Rays were. Will there be a culture shock or will Upton try to fit in? Chipper Jones is no longer there to keep people in line and Dan Uggla doesn’t put up with the nonsense of teammates jogging around—with the Marlins he confronted Hanley Ramirez repeatedly; Tim Hudson won’t shrug off Upton jogging after a shot in the gap; and Fredi Gonzalez is more outwardly temperamental than Maddon.
Perhaps what Upton needs is the starchy, conservative, “this is how we do things” Braves instead of the freewheeling, young, and new age Rays. Maybe he’ll take the new contract as a challenge and want to live up to the money he’s being paid, money that based on bottom line statistics alone, he never would have received.
Upton is one of the most talented players in baseball with a lithe body, speed, power, and great defensive skills. At 28, he’s in his prime. The Braves just need to hope that he feels like playing and fitting in, because if he doesn’t the same issues that were prevalent in Tampa will be evident in Atlanta, except they’ll be paying big money to cajole, entreat, challenge, discipline and bench him while the Rays weren’t.
Upton is a “can” player. He can hit 20+ homers. He can steal 40 bases. He can make plays of unique defensive wizardry. He can get on base and take pitches. The Braves are paying for what he can do. What he will do is the question that not even the Braves are able to answer. They’re certainly paying for it though. It could be a retrospective bargain or disaster. And no one knows within a reasonable degree of certainty as to which it’s going to be.