Commentary

It's tough times for Justin Upton

Will D-backs' young slugger, the subject of trade rumors, be long for Arizona?

Originally Published: August 7, 2012
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

Justin Upton's name began surfacing in trade rumors before the All-Star break, when the Arizona Diamondbacks made it clear they would be open to offers for their 24-year-old tools-laden right fielder. The news updates sparked a frenzy of speculation, which subsided in late July when managing partner Ken Kendrick and team president Derrick Hall stepped in and squashed the chatter.

Life has now settled into the more comfortable rhythms of a pennant race, and Upton has gotten a second wind. He looks more relaxed and self-assured at the plate, and the Diamondbacks are pushing hard to stay close to the San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League West race.

[+] EnlargeJustin Upton
Jennifer Hilderbrand/US PresswireJustin Upton has hit a mere nine home runs in 101 games so far this season.

So where will the plot go from here? The Upton trade landscape could be more inviting in the offseason, when 29 other teams have a chance to take stock, assess their rosters and payrolls, and come up with a more attractive package of talent. Or maybe Arizona general manager Kevin Towers will decide to keep Upton, the Diamondbacks embrace him as their franchise face moving forward, and the events of this summer will go down as just a blip in a long and productive relationship.

The Diamondbacks previously caused a stir in November 2010, when they tossed out Upton's name as a trade candidate. Upton has now had to wrap his mind around the possibility of being uprooted twice in less than two years. How many times does a kid have to hear his name in trade rumors before he starts to take it personally?

"I can only control what I'm doing right now,'' Upton says. "When we get to the offseason, we'll cross that road. It's not hard to play for this organization because I owe it to the [other 24] guys in this clubhouse to show up and play every day. We'll deal with the other stuff when we get to it.''

If you sense a slight chill in the desert air, you're not alone. There's peace at Chase Field, but it feels like a tenuous peace.

Trying season

A year ago, the Diamondbacks would have had a hard time keeping a straight face -- much less verbally engaging -- if another team had inquired about Upton. He won a Silver Slugger Award, made his second All-Star team and finished fourth in NL Most Valuable Player balloting in 2011. Upton also has three years and $38.5 million left on a six-year deal that runs through 2015, so that means cost certainty moving forward.

But Upton hasn't been the MVP in his own clubhouse this season, much less a league MVP candidate. After hitting 31 homers last year, he has nine this season. His slugging percentage has dipped from .529 to .404, and he has an offensive Wins Above Replacement of 0.7 compared to 4.7 in 2011.

Upon isn't hitting the ball in the air as often or pulling it with much authority. According to ESPN Stats & Information, his ground ball rate is up (from 37 to 45 percent) and his fly ball rate is down (from 46 to 34 percent). He has also been strangely unassertive, taking called third strikes at an alarming rate.

What's the problem? Pick a theory. Upton hurt his thumb in April and got off to a slow start. Opponents are most likely pitching him more carefully after his monster season, and his mechanics have been out of whack at times. An AL scout said he thinks Upton looks bulkier this season, but Upton maintains that his winter workout regimen didn't change one iota. Finally, Upton wouldn't be human if he didn't feel a greater responsibility to carry the team now that he's become more established in his career.

"As much as people put expectations on me, my expectations for myself are even higher,'' Upton says. "So imagine what kind of pressure I put on myself. Maybe more than I need to.''

The groundswell of dissatisfaction in Phoenix gained steam in early June, when Kendrick appeared on a local radio show and vented about Upton and shortstop Stephen Drew. (Kendrick referred to Upton as an enigma.) Then the trade speculation ran rampant. Within baseball circles, the news of Upton's availability sparked the inevitable blitz of speculation: Is something going on with the kid that other teams don't know about?

Only the Diamondbacks know for sure what they hoped to achieve by bandying Upton's name about so freely. Did the Upton trade speculation create a buzz around the franchise? No doubt. But all that talk and no action left the D-backs with a dazed and confused young star on their hands.

As much as people put expectations on me, my expectations for myself are even higher. So imagine what kind of pressure I put on myself. Maybe more than I need to.

-- Justin Upton

Some baseball observers speculate that Kendrick's comments were meant as a motivational tactic or a way to get Upton's attention. Team officials say privately that Kendrick is a "huge'' Upton supporter, but he was simply frustrated and puzzled by what he had seen between the lines this year. If his candor served as a wake-up call to Upton, so be it.

On July 4, a Chase Field crowd of 48,819 booed Upton in response to an 0-for-5 performance against San Diego. Upton compounded matters when he told reporters, "I don't care what the fans think of me.'' It was just a knee-jerk response to a case of hurt feelings. But Upton found that words can linger even when they're spoken in haste and frustration -- and there's no such thing as a mulligan on a postgame interview.

"Arizona has been good to me,'' he says in hindsight. "But it was disappointing to get booed the way I was. Obviously, I know I wasn't playing well. I understand where people were coming from because they want me to perform. But I want to win too. I want to perform too. I just think there are other ways to do it if you want to light a fire.''

Upton was stung more deeply by an Internet report citing anonymous executives who described him as "not a winning player'' -- a catch-all phrase that generally applies to players who are selfish, lack toughness or don't come through in the clutch. His agent, Larry Reynolds, quickly sprang to his client's defense, telling USA Today that it was "unfounded, negative rhetoric'' advanced by "gutless people'' who were afraid to attach their name to it. Upton, similarly, thinks the critique was out of bounds.

"People can comment on my production any day of the week and I'll own up to that,'' he says. "But it's a little bothersome when people challenge your character and they just don't know. Nobody knows how hard I work except for my teammates and coaches, or how hard I pull for teammates. Nobody knows that stuff, so they can't comment on that.''

Hall, the team president, recently told ESPN.com that he'll be "surprised'' if Upton is moved this winter. But he concedes that the Diamondbacks have a responsibility to be candid with Upton and let him know where things stand. With each new trade situation, the Diamondbacks have to consider the possibility that Upton will go on to do what Andrew McCutchen is doing this year in Pittsburgh.

"Justin has so much talent,'' Hall says. "We know it's there, and he's going to explode. We truly believe the sky is the limit for this guy and he'll be the superstar everybody is predicting. Some people believe he may need a change of scenery. Who knows? If we're ever blown away by a proposal, we have to consider it. But we know we're a better team with Justin Upton.''

Dealing with the hype

Both Justin and his brother, B.J., have dealt with the weight of expectations since they were highly regarded teens coming out of Virginia. B.J. was the second overall pick behind Bryan Bullington in the 2002 draft, and Justin went first in a loaded 2005 draft that included Alex Gordon, Ryan Zimmerman, Ryan Braun, Troy Tulowitzki, McCutchen and Jay Bruce.

Last week, the Uptons became the sixth set of brothers to hit 100 home runs each; they each reached the milestone on the same night. B.J. is one of only eight players in history to have 100 homers and 200 stolen bases before his 28th birthday. But he's widely regarded as a disappointment among executives, scouts and fans who wonder if he isn't capable of so much more.

In contrast to B.J., Justin can be a portrait in intensity. That was readily apparent during the 2007 playoffs, when he blew up Colorado second baseman Kaz Matsui with a slide straight out of the Hal McRae take-no-prisoners catalogue. The umpires called him out for interference -- prompting Arizona fans to throw bottles in anger -- while Diamondbacks officials looked on and marveled at the 20-year-old phenom with the ever-present "It'' factor.

[+] EnlargeKirk Gibson and Justin Upton
Gary A. Vasquez/US PresswireFrom all indications, Upton has a good relationship with Diamondbacks manager Kirk Gibson.

The next year, Arizona manager Bob Melvin invited Hall of Famer Frank Robinson to talk to Upton and reinforce the message that it's permissible to play baseball with an old-school edge. The conversation left an indelible mark.

"Mr. Robinson talked about playing the game aggressively and having the mentality that nobody is going to get you out,'' Upton says. "It was inspiring for me. The great ones like Frank Robinson played the game the same way, day in and day out. It makes you think, If they could do it, I can do it.''

From all accounts, Upton has been warming to his new, more prominent role in Arizona. He has his own outfield cheering section, "Uptown,'' and he's active in local charities, from Best Buddies to the Muhammad Ali Foundation. But when it comes to fan relations, not every player can be Torii Hunter -- or in the Diamondbacks' case, Luis Gonzalez. Upton is respectful, unfailingly polite and quick to sign autographs, but he's not a schmoozer or the type of person who wakes up in the morning and hits the ground smiling.

Upton is also striving to find a balance between playing with passion and being under control. If he slams a helmet or breaks a bat, some critic in the box seats is bound to note that he's "too emotional.'' If he's overly stoic on the field, someone will say he doesn't care enough.

Arizona manager Kirk Gibson can relate to the learning curve Upton is facing. He had barely stepped off the Michigan State campus when Tigers manager Sparky Anderson assessed his rare combination of power and speed, comparing him to a certain switch-hitting god from Oklahoma.

"When I first came up Sparky anointed me the 'next Mickey Mantle,' and I thought, 'That's cool,''' Gibson says. "Everybody likes to have people say good things about you. The reality was, I was no Mickey Mantle. And when you're Justin Upton and you're highly acclaimed before you get to high school, people are going to do that.

"Last year when I became manager, I told him, 'J-Up, I don't know how good you're going to be. But I can tell you how to find out.'''

Gibson's message to Upton: Go out and prepare the same way every day, focus on what you need to do to help the team win, and your legacy will ultimately take care of itself.

Family affair

The Uptons' parents, Manny and Yvonne, have earned praise in the baseball world for keeping their sons grounded and stressing the importance of success with no shortcuts. Manny, or Bossman, works for a Virginia bank and referees college basketball games. He understands that trade speculation comes with the territory. He's not so cool with the notion that his sons' characters are flawed because they both have a sub-.800 OPS.

"I try not to read the stuff online because it's very opinionated,'' Manny says. "My wife reads it all the time. Moms are a little more sensitive than dads are. I understand it's 'what have you done for me lately?' But Justin was a two-time All-Star before age 24. He can't be so bad.''

Manny Upton sees a side of his two sons that few people know. He was in Tampa this spring when a woman in a wheelchair stopped him and pronounced herself a B.J. fan because he always has time for her. Soon after that, Manny, Yvonne and Justin were standing in the parking lot of Arizona outfielder Chris Young's condo when they saw a young woman wheeling a baby stroller and having difficulty opening the door to her building in the rain. When Justin instinctively rushed to help her, it was yet another small but telling sign that the boys had heeded their parents' instructions.

"We taught them from day one, 'You have to be a better person than a baseball player. Respect others and stay humble,'" Manny Upton says. "I don't mind the trade part, because that's part of the business. But when people start attacking their character, that's when I have a problem as a parent.''

Around teammates and friends, Justin Upton is your average uncomplicated 24-year-old. He plays Monopoly in the clubhouse on his iPad, and goes back to the hotel after the games and play cards with Young. He's a fan of European soccer, enjoys bowling and has knockdown, drag-out, trash-talking golf games with his brother and dad during the offseason. By all accounts, he is hypercompetitive whether he's digging into the box against Matt Cain or playing Pop-A-Shot or FIFA Soccer on his Xbox.

Day in and day out, Upton's teammates say there's not an ounce of diva or a shred of entitlement in him.

"We see how hard a worker he is,'' says reliever Brad Ziegler. "He's always taking extra BP or watching video or hitting off a tee, doing whatever he can to get back to where he was last year. We all see it. We know he's trying. We want him to come out of it just as much as he does -- if not more.''

Although Upton's power numbers are down markedly, he's made strides in other facets of the game. Last year Upton ranked second to Atlanta's Jason Heyward among MLB right fielders in the Fielding Bible's defensive rankings with 29 runs saved, and they're 1-2 in that department again this season. Gibson says that Upton is doing a better job going back on balls and is more accurate with his throws. Despite his disappointing home run total, Upton ranks among the National League leaders with 71 runs scored.

In a 3-2 Arizona victory over Philadelphia on Friday, Upton hit a long home run to left field and threw out John Mayberry Jr. on a questionable call at the plate. But the most telling insight into Upton's approach came on a routine ground ball to third, when he dropped his head and sprinted down the line, only to be thrown out by two steps. Upton is learning that if a player is diligent enough in tending to the little things, the big things will take care of themselves.

"The reality is, to get where you want to go, you have to keep your composure, stay on task and stay on target,'' Gibson says. "I would caution any critic to wait until Justin's career is over, and his history will be defined. I've told him that.''

The Diamondbacks say they have no desire to trade Upton, but they're obliged to listen. Upton says he's focused on the pennant race, but a road might have to be crossed in the offseason. It's been an eventful summer in the evolution of Justin Upton. There's plenty more to come.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer