Commentary

Time is short for B.J. Upton, Rays

Free agency looms, so the end likely is near for Upton's tenure with Tampa Bay

Originally Published: September 15, 2012
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

B.J. Upton is intent on living in the present, with only an occasional wink or nod toward his future employment prospects. But it isn't much of a secret that after eight seasons in Tampa Bay, he is considered a lock to become an ex-Ray through free agency this winter. The big mystery: Will he shake hands and share that ceremonial goodbye hug with owner Stuart Sternberg at his locker stall after game No. 162, or sometime during the postseason in October?

When Upton officially does the Carl Crawford thing and severs his ties to the organization, he and Rays fans will have plenty of memories to share. It all began in 2002, when Tampa Bay selected Upton out of Chesapeake, Va., with the second pick in the first-year player draft. A decade later, Upton ranks second to Crawford on the franchise's career list in games, at-bats, runs, hits, total bases, stolen bases and doubles.

That's the macro glimpse of his career arc.

[+] EnlargeBJ Upton
Charles Sonnenblick/Getty Images B.J. Upton takes a curtain call after hitting his third homer of the game last Sunday.

If you're looking for a singular snapshot of his tenure in Tampa Bay, a five-day span this week might prove instructive.

Last Sunday at Tropicana Field, Upton was a free-swinging, rocket-launching machine. He hit three home runs in a 6-0 win over the Rangers, who had no prayer of containing him. Then Upton became a social media feel-good story when a fan named Brent Sutton found his wallet, contacted him via Twitter and returned it a couple of hours later. Upton gave Sutton a bat -- though he didn't have a Sharpie to sign it, regretfully -- and the good Samaritan jumped on his motorcycle and sped off into the sunset.

So spirits were high … until the Rays arrived in Baltimore, and Upton went 1-for-14 with a home run and four strikeouts. The Rays dropped three straight games to the Orioles to put a crimp in their playoff aspirations, but Upton hit a solo home run Friday night and the Rays rebounded with a 6-4 victory over the Yankees in the Bronx.

That sums him up. Upton, 28, thrills, confounds and occasionally exasperates the scouts. He is quick to amaze, but it's never a surprise when something happens to dampen the enthusiasm.

"He's in the top 10 of center fielders in the game," an American League executive said. "That's pretty good. But people were probably expecting him to be in the top three."

Free agent catch?

In early August, B.J. and his younger brother Justin reached a baseball milestone in tandem. When Justin homered off Philadelphia's Kyle Kendrick and B.J. went deep against Baltimore's Tommy Hunter, they joined the Alomars, Boones, Boyers, DiMaggios and Meusels as the sixth set of baseball brothers in the 100-home run club.

"He did it 55 minutes before I did it, and he let me know about it," B.J. said. "But it was all in fun. It was definitely a special day for us and a special day for my family."

While Justin has endured a power outage in Arizona this summer and weathered a round of trade rumors in July, B.J. has strengthened his bona fides as one of baseball's premier power-speed packages. He has 16 home runs and 39 RBIs since the All-Star break, compared to 15 and 37 for fellow center fielder and American League MVP frontrunner Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels.

[+] EnlargeB.J. Upton
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesUpton's bat should have him in high demand among teams in the market for outfielders this winter.

Upton's stats have him mingling in impressive company. With his 100th home run, he joined Rickey Henderson, Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonds, Cesar Cedeno, Eric Davis, Lloyd Moseby and Hanley Ramirez as one of eight players to collect 100 homers and 200 stolen bases before age 28. Since 2007, Ramirez ranks first in the majors with four 20-homer, 20-steal seasons. Upton, Curtis Granderson, Ryan Braun, Ian Kinsler, Chris Young and Brandon Phillips each have three.

That brings us to the 2012 playoff race, and Upton's chaotic agenda. Over the next 18 games, he'll have a chance to help dig the Rays out of a hole in pursuit of their fourth postseason appearance in five years. At the same time, Upton's performance could earn him some traction in a crowded free-agent center field market that includes Josh Hamilton, Michael Bourn, Shane Victorino, Torii Hunter and the recently disgraced Melky Cabrera.

ESPN.com surveyed four MLB executives about Upton's free-agent outlook, and their estimates ran the gamut. A National League general manager predicted that Upton will sign a three-year, $27 million deal. Other executives were more generous, with estimates ranging from four years and $50 million to five years and $70 million. The Rangers, Nationals, Phillies, Braves, Red Sox, Yankees, Reds, Giants and Cubs are among the teams that could be searching for outfield help this offseason, and there's no telling how spirited the bidding might get.

The consensus: Upton is a good-but-not-great player with the ability to have a monster, breakthrough season. Could a change of scenery help? Ask us again next year at this time.

"I like Upton, but I think he is very inconsistent as a player," a National League executive wrote in an email. "He has as many tools as any player in the league, but our scouts question whether he plays hard every day and his general mindset. He's kind of like a modern-day Mike Cameron as far as profile goes in that he hits for a low average, but provides defense, power and speed. He's not an elite center fielder, but he's a good player who could help a lot of clubs."

[+] EnlargeJustin & BJ Upton
AP Photo/Chris O'MearaAs of August, the Upton brothers -- B.J. on the left, Justin on the right -- each have at least 100 career home runs.

If Upton and his camp are sensitive to anything, it's the perception that he doesn't always bring his "A" game to the park. He is poker-faced by nature and rarely smiles for public consumption, so it's easy for people to derive a certain impression. As one scout observed while watching Upton take batting practice at Camden Yards last week, "He doesn't look like he's having any fun out there."

In reality, the people close to Upton insist that he's a better teammate, a more diligent worker and more consistently professional in his approach than his reputation suggests. Yes, he can be stubborn and overly sensitive at times. He quibbles with umpires a little too much on borderline pitches. And scouts -- who have long memories -- file away those instances where he'll miss a ball in center and pursue it at less than full speed. But in spite of those flaws, there's a danger in believing everything that's passed around the baseball grapevine.

"You'll see a ball go over his head and he'll lollygag after it with this sluggish gait, and some of my colleagues and peers will go off about it," an NL scout said. "Personally, I think he's embarrassed when he doesn't execute. He has pride, and the last thing he wants to be is embarrassed. I think it's more frustration than anything."

So what's preventing Upton from taking the next step?

"I don't think it's anything physical or a lack of passion," the scout said. "For some players, the mental strength to perform at that high level seven days a week doesn't connect with the physical end of it. I've seen it in Jeffrey Hammonds and other players who had super ability. The focus goes, the rhythm goes, and then it comes back. Maybe we all just over-expected what this guy should be."

[+] EnlargeB.J. Upton
J. Meric/Getty ImagesHe makes it look easy in the outfield, which might lead to misperceptions about his hustle.

If you listen to people who see Upton in action every day, the perception that he's disengaged or doesn't care is simply off base. One Rays official says Upton has a "good compass" -- a reflection of the values that he and Justin learned from their parents, Manny and Yvonne. He is well-regarded by teammates, professional and accountable with the media, and does charity work in the community with no desire for publicity. Upton has averaged 149 games and 629 at-bats over the past four seasons while playing half his games on turf, so he's durable, too.

"I came over here from Cleveland, and I didn't know what to expect," Rays hitting coach Derek Shelton said. "Then I spent the whole first winter with him and I found out. He's a fun-loving guy with a great sense of humor. He's a big part of our clubhouse and the culture here. And he works hard at the game -- especially hitting. He takes a lot of pride in it and he asks good questions.

"Watch him play defense, and he does things so easily. He has those long strides and he glides, and people misconstrue that as a lack of effort. No way is that the case. When people aren't in our clubhouse every day, they can misinterpret things in an unflattering way that isn't fair to him."

Agent Larry Reynolds, who'll be doing the negotiating on Upton's behalf this winter, will be entrusted with cutting through the static and driving the narrative to the interested clubs.

"B.J. is a good person. But most importantly, he wants to win -- period," Reynolds said. "He plays the game right. He's one of the first guys at the park, and he stays a long time after games. I'm confident that any of the players on that team or anybody in the dugout would tell you they enjoy playing with him."

Charting his own course

Upton has been heavily scrutinized since his teen years at Greenbrier Christian Academy, and he has come to grips with the realization that phenoms are going to have their games dissected bit by agonizing bit. He understands that you can't please all of the people, all of the time. Or even some of the time.

"When I was a little younger, it might have gotten to me a little bit," he said. "It's tough when the home fans say some of the things they say about you. But it is what it is. People are going to say what they want to say, think what they want to think and place labels on you. I think the people who do know me know what type of person I am, and that's what matters to me.

[+] EnlargeB.J. Upton
Brace Hemmelgarn/Getty ImagesHe isn't demonstrative on the field or in the dugout, but he's a big part of the Rays' clubhouse culture.

"My 100 percent doesn't look like other guys' 100 percent. I was told that as a teenager. They always brought up the 'lazy' label because I didn't make things look hard. If you've got a problem with that, talk to the man upstairs. He's the one that gave it to me. I'm putting forth my best effort. It just doesn't look like it. I can't control that."

Rays manager Joe Maddon, who has benched Upton once or twice over the years for lack of hustle, has seen numerous signs of maturity in his center fielder. Upton has become a more discerning and proficient base stealer in recent seasons, and his 83 percent success rate this year (30-for-36) reflects it. He also is more attentive to hitting cutoff men and throwing to the right base, and his arm strength is a major weapon. His 50 outfield assists rank first among center fielders since 2007.

But the numbers aren't all trending in the right direction. Upton peaked with 97 walks four years ago, and he has drawn only 40 bases on balls this season. According to FanGraphs, he swung at 19.1 percent of pitches outside the strike zone in 2007. This year, he has offered at 32.3 percent. Upton's 915 strikeouts since 2007 are sixth most in the majors behind Mark Reynolds, Adam Dunn, Ryan Howard, Carlos Pena and Dan Uggla.

Nevertheless, Upton's career profile says he could play a pivotal role in Tampa Bay's playoff push. Statistically, September has been his second-most productive month after April over his eight years in the majors. Think back to the 2008 postseason, when he hit seven home runs and drove in 15 runs in 46 playoff at-bats against Chicago and Boston. The magic is in there somewhere.

"I've never seen him cower to a big moment," Maddon said. "This guy has taken lot of criticism, but he's never come into my office and cried about it. I've seen him play in high-leverage moments, and they bring out the best in him."

Although the clock is running out on the playoff race, big moments are sure to arrive in waves over the season's final two and a half weeks. If Upton is going to add to his Tampa Bay greatest hits collection, there is no time like the present.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer