There was no name that caused more debate in organizations around baseball this offseason than “Upton.”
There were impassioned debates on the Upton issue, talent vs. intangibles. There were baseball people who pleaded with their teams to go after B.J. Upton as a free agent and to deal with Arizona for younger brother Justin Upton, and there also were those who said “over my dead body” would they have either.
Officials in one American League East organization were virtually unanimous in the opinion that neither Upton was for them.
The Braves, however, bought the family. They signed B.J. as a free agent and then traded the very-consistent-and-full-of-intangibles Martin Prado and prospects for the upside of Justin’s amazing yet spotty talent.
From a skills point of view, you understand why B.J. and Justin will be two-thirds of a potentially explosive outfield, with Jason Heyward the other third. They have every tool imaginable, but both have been short on the intangibles and consistency of performance.
“A lot of talent,” said a longtime National League scout who advises his GM on trades. “Could be dangerous and could be flammable for the Braves.
“Justin is a good talent but has gotten worse in the field every year, and they both lack consistent concentration that frustrates teammates and fans. Having said all that, not a bad gamble to see if putting them together brings out the best.”
It’s obviously a great story to have brothers in the same outfield.
“People ask me all the time, do I think having them both together will be a good thing?” said an AL scout who has watched Justin since he was 14 in the Area Code Games and B.J. throughout his career. “I say yes. These kids come from a good family with a strong upbringing. These kids were raised right.
“You can say what you want about the inconsistency of their performance, but B.J. has averaged about 40 steals a year the last five years. His home run totals have gone up every year and he’s 28. Justin has had a career-type year already. He’s had a few injuries, which have kept him down.
“What is it we’re looking for here? Power, defense, speed? Teams really don’t want that? Have they seen what’s coming up through the minor leagues? Do you see players like that growing on trees?
Diamondbacks general manager Kevin Towers basically tried to deal Justin in three offseasons before finally pulling the trigger. He tried to get the Red Sox to take him for Clay Buchholz two years ago. Tried again this offseason. The Red Sox did not bite, even though they’re one of the teams that like Justin.
There has always been a frustration factor because even though the skills are there, sometimes the will, desire, and mental commitment aren’t.
The Braves’ hope is that playing together will create a bit of family competition and the best of the mental side will come out.
Yet there are so many baseball people who share the opinion that free agent center fielder Michael Bourn, whom the Braves discarded, is a better player than B.J. Upton. The Braves wanted to get a bit more righthanded, and Bourn’s original asking price after a solid season was steep. Amazingly, Bourn is still out there, shut out of the center-field market, while the Uptons have been reunited.
There are special assignment scouts who have watched both Uptons for a few years and wouldn’t recommend them if they were the last players standing. Yet B.J., 28, is entering the prime of his career and Justin, 25, has put up good numbers for a player his age.
“In my opinion, they are both overhyped and overpaid,” said an AL special assistant.
The Upton proponents will tell you, “Just wait until these guys hit their prime,” while the opponents say, “They’ve both been in the league for a while and they’re not winning players.”
We have seen B.J. drop routine fly balls and get picked off, and we’ve seen him play Gold Glove center field, steal second and third on successive pitches, and come up with late-game heroics. Coaches in Tampa Bay were often frustrated that B.J. couldn’t make the adjustments to smooth out his swing.
B.J. had his best season at age 22 for Tampa Bay when he hit .300 with 24 homers, 82 RBIs, and 22 steals. Last season, he hit a career-best 28 homers but his on-base percentage sank to .298. In 2011, Justin hit .289 with 31 homers, 88 RBIs, and an .898 OPS, but last season he slumped to .280 with 17 homers and 67 RBIs.
Their talent is clear in the fact that they’re the first set of brothers to be drafted No. 1 and No 2 overall: Justin No. 1 by Arizona in 2005 and B.J. No. 2 overall by Tampa Bay in 2002. They also were the first brother act to record 20 homers and 20 steals in a season.
Athletically, you’re not going to find a better outfield in baseball than Atlanta’s. The Braves have lost the intangible gift that Prado gave him and his effect on teammates (as they did by losing David Ross at the catcher position). So this could answer a great baseball question: Is talent greater than intangibles?
The Uptons will be at the center of that debate.
Apropos of something
Major League Baseball has a medical advisory committee looking into the number of hip-related injuries the past few years.
The elephant on the list will be steroid use — both medical and anabolic — and how it affects workout routines, which may be too strenuous on that part of the body. The rise in hip issues has coincided with the steroid era, so it’s something that will be looked into. Alex Rodriguez, for one, has had major hip issues and has admitted to using steroids.
Other major players who have had hip injuries include Chase Utley, Brett Myers, and Alex Gordon, to name a few.
“I think we simply know more about how to diagnose hip injuries now than we did 10 years ago,” said Patriots team physician Thomas Gill, who served in that capacity for the Red Sox for many years. “There’s more information. I’m not sure if there are more hip injuries, but what we used to call ‘hip flexors’ could actually be tears.”
There are obviously other factors, including genetic predisposition and simple wear and tear. There is also a theory that athletes who specialize in one sport from a young age might be over-training in one particular area for longer periods of time and thus creating excessive stress on the hip joints.
This study was in the works even before the discovery of Mike Napoli’s avascular nercosis, a degenerative condition that could lead to hip replacement. In Napoli’s case, the condition simply could be a result of catching for many years. According to one orthopedic surgeon, squatting in and of itself causes strain on the hips.
AVN is uncommon in baseball, and Napoli has been diagnosed in the early stages. By reducing their contract offer from three years to one, the Red Sox are trying to beat the clock.
The finding was bad news for both Napoli, who now may never get a long-term deal anywhere, and the Sox, who thought they had a first baseman for at least three years.
It was a hip problem, too, that ended the career of former Red Sox third baseman Mike Lowell.
Apropos of nothing
1. Former Sox second baseman Jody Reed, who was a guest at the writers dinner Thursday, is now managing at Double A Chattanooga in the Dodgers organization and aspires to be a major league manager. “When you stop playing, nothing ever replaces that, but then you find something like coaching and managing and how you can make a difference in someone’s career.” he said. “I’ll never forget when I was with the Red Sox in Winter Haven, Denny Doyle would knock on my hotel room door every morning at 10 a.m. and we’d work on my fielding for 90 minutes.”
2. Loved Buck Showalter scolding those who didn’t attend to pick up their awards at the writers dinner. Showalter, who received the chapter’s Manager of the Year award, said if someone is going to give you an award “you should get your ass here and accept it.” Dustin Pedroia, Will Middlebrooks, and Clay Buchholz were among the Red Sox who didn’t attend the dinner.
3. The more you’re around him, the more you realize what a class act Jarrod Saltalamacchia is. His charitable work is second to none. He is a player who really gets it, and the Sox should think twice about trading a catcher with 25-homer power.
4. Similarly, Daniel Nava treasures every day he is in the majors. He was a kid who used to wash the baseball jerseys in college. From laundry to left field in the majors — not bad.
5. One of the funnier moments Thursday came when Terry Francona was asked about Pedro Martinez being hired as a special assistant to Ben Cherington. “Well, at least now he has to be on time,” Francona said. The manager was then informed that Martinez was about 20 minutes late for his press conference.
6. I’ll tell you one guy in the Sox organization who doesn’t get enough credit: video coordinator Billy Broadbent, who keeps video of every pitcher and hitter in the league so players can watch any player in any situation. Amazing stuff.
7. Everyone needs to give John Lackey another chance. And Lackey needs to give everyone — fans, media, teammates — another chance.
Updates on nine
1. Ron Mahay, LHP, free agent — Mahay, who was an outfielder with the Red Sox as a replacement player, then pitched as a reliever in the majors for 14 seasons and on eight teams, has called it a career. Mahay, 41, said he’s now looking to get into coaching or managing.
2. Jair Jurrjens, RHP, Orioles — Baltimore had been quiet all winter, but Jurrjens is an interesting signing. The Braves believed that his bad knees would never allow him to be the All-Star type pitcher he showed in flashes, but the Orioles are taking the chance, with a minimal financial commitment of $1.5 million, that, with some patience, Jurrjens could be a factor for them. Jurrjens is only 27.
3. Rick Porcello, RHP, Tigers — You just get the feeling that, sometime before or during spring training, Porcello will be moved. The Diamondbacks appear to be out of the running after Kevin Towers obtained Randall Delgado from the Braves in the Justin Upton deal. The Tigers want to upgrade their defense at shortstop and perhaps add a quality reliever. Porcello, while only 23, hasn’t shown upward trends, and that has made him expendable.
4. Michael Bourn, CF, free agent — Last week, we reported that there was minimal interest in him by the Mets. That might be enough for the Mets to land him eventually. It still amazes so many baseball people that Bourn is the odd man out in free agency. Draft-pick compensation is indeed an issue, but a shrunken center-field market was more to blame. The Mets, Mariners, and possibly Orioles are waiting for a bargain deal. One American League manager reasoned, “There might come a point here very soon where if you can get him on a one-year deal, you might juggle some things around to accommodate him. He can be a force on your team.”
5. Bobby Abreu, 1B/DH, free agent — Abreu wants to stay in baseball, and the Red Sox were among the teams that tried him out. But I was told the Red Sox are unlikely to pursue him as that backup first baseman/outfielder they’re looking for. In his prime, he would have been perfect for the Red Sox with that excellent on-base percentage. But Father Time has intervened.
6. Mark DeRosa, INF, Blue Jays — GM Alex Anthopoulos always likes to have that veteran in the clubhouse who can bring a roster together. He tried doing that for John Farrell last season with Omar Vizquel but it didn’t work out. DeRosa is this year’s designee. By all accounts, he is a future manager who can be a mentor to younger players. The Jays already have a high-quality leader in Jose Bautista, but DeRosa should be a big help to manager John Gibbons.
7. Pedro Martinez, special assistant, Red Sox — We’re going to find out whether Martinez’s elite status as a pitcher makes him a good talent evaluator or whether his standards are so high that it’ll be tough for young pitchers to impress him. A friend of Martinez said of his new role, “The bottom line is, he knows talent and he knows pitching. He’s going to make evaluations and work with guys, but he’s an adviser. He’s not going to dictate their moves.” Interesting that while Pedro will be working young Sox pitchers, Roger Clemens will assume the same role with the Astros.
8. Alfonso Soriano, LF, Cubs — Always on the trading block, Soriano could still be moved before spring training, as teams like the Orioles and Rangers look to make last-minute moves to improve. Soriano belted 32 homers and knocked in 108 runs for the 101-loss Cubs, who continue to be willing to assume the bulk of the contract for a fair return.
9. Vernon Wells, OF, Angels — The Angels had some hope that he could be moved this winter, but after the Phillies signed Delmon Young, that possibility dimmed. It looks like the Angels are stuck with him, and their hope is that Wells will step up and be a force off the bench. “I think people will look back on his career and wonder, how could a guy who came into the league with so much ability let this happen?” said an American League scout who once touted Wells as one of the best talents in the game.
From the Bill Chuck files: “On Aug. 6, 1988, John Farrell, pitching for the Cleveland Indians, defeated the Texas Rangers, 5-3. Indians DH Terry Francona went 3 for 4. The Rangers were managed by Bobby Valentine.” Also, “Don’t underestimate the defensive value of Alex Avila behind the plate for the Tigers. In 2010, his pitchers had a 4.47 ERA; in 2011, it was 3.88; and last season, it was 3.59.” . . . Happy birthday, Ken Huckaby (42), Phil Plantier (44), and Eric Wedge (45).Nick Cafardo can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.