My complete preview for the MLB season is here, today I will continue my team by team analysis of the player that is the most important to watch in the upcoming season. This isn't necessarily the best player, rather someone who's season is important for the team, or their growth as a player.
Tampa Bay Rays: B.J. Upton
It muse be a family thing, because Justin Upton was the Key to the Arizona Diamondbacks for the fear of turning into B.J. The older Upton came into the league with the hype that he would be hitting for power, stealing bases and have a good average. He was the number 2 prospect by Baseball America in 2004 at the age of 19! The problem is that he has never been able to live up to the hype, at least not for long stretches.
His first full season at the major league level was his best by far, he hit .300 with 24 home runs and 82 rbis, all highs for his career. He only stole 22 bases that season (has 40+ every year since), but the overall production has fallen substantially since that first season except for one small stretch when it looked like Upton was ready to take a leap into super-stardom.
That was the 2008 ALDS and ALCS, a stretch of 11 games where Upton carried the Rays into the World series by beating the Chicago White Sox and Boston Red Sox. In those 11 games Upton hit 7 home runs, had 15 rbis with a .304 batting average. The entire baseball world thought that he was finally going to live up to the hype as a legit power-speed-average player.
That wasn't the case, he followed up that season by posting consecutive averages of .241 and .237. He did hit 18 home runs last season, but because of his low average it was still a very underwhelming year.
The good news for Upton, he is still just 26 years old and has time to make something of his career, but another season like his last two may be the end of him. This season the Rays are expected to compete, and Upton is going to be hitting in the one or two hole, which means he needs to find a way to get on base.
The Rays lineup is not one that will scare opposing pitchers when other than Evan Longoria, there is no real difficult out. Upton apparently has the potential to be the guy who is feared by opposing pitchers, he has done it before, and with the loss of Carlos Pena, he will need to do it again this season. But I am unsure if it will ever be possible to predict Upton, his trend is all or nothing.
Upton has played 8 seasons of professional baseball between Major and Minor League. He has three seasons with an average at or above .300. In those seasons he has 3 of his top 4 home run totals. Meaning when he is hitting for a low average, he isn't hitting home runs either, which is an unusual trend. Most players average goes down the more home runs they hit, but Upton is the opposite.
Looking at that trend it shows that Upton is either hitting the ball very well, or not at all; there is no in-between. That makes any projections of Upton a crap-shoot, but what it does show is that him having a good year will be key to the Rays. If trends continues, a good year for him is going to be a complete season with power and average as well.
While his bat is a question mark, one thing that is sure is that Upton will be a top tier fielder. He hasn't won a Gold Glove, but he has been towards the top of the league in advanced fielding stats for the majority of his career.
In a tough division, the Rays will need their lineup to hit well all year long if they expect to compete. They have solid pitching, but in the American League East, hitting is what wins ball-games.
This year is also important for Upton because he has Desmond Jennings nipping at his heels for playing time. Jennings is the number 22 rated prospect this year by Baseball America, and was actually ranked 6th before last season. If Upton struggles, he may be benched to give Jennings a shot in Center field and in the lead-off spot. Jennings has less power potential, but more speed and average upside than Upton. There is clearly a future for both, but the Rays have plenty of young talent that will eventually get their shot.
Also manager Joe Maddon has already benched Upton before for not hustling, so him being benched to look at young talent seems like a reasonable possibility.
Others considered: The Rays have 7 players in the top 100 of Baseball Americas prospects, which is one of the highest totals in the league. These players have some developing to do, but they are the future of the Rays, the question is whether they will become Upton-like and never develop. Or they could become like Longoria or David Price and become some of the best in baseball...Price and Jeremy Helickson: Price has done it before with a dominating 2010 season, Helickson will be in his first full year, but has done very well at every level. If they are able to put together strong seasons, the Rays will be able to match up with any team in the American league. Both are young and with an increased work-load they may struggle, but they both have Cy Young upside.
Previous keys to their teams: Diamondbacks and Orioles. Red Sox and Braves Chicago White Sox and Chicago Cubs Cincinnati Reds and Cleveland Indians Colorado Rockies and Detroit Tigers Florida Marlins and Kansas City Royals Los Angeles Angels and Kansas City Royals Minnesota Twins and Los Angeles Dodgers New York Yankees Milwaukee Brewers Oakland Athletics Seattle Mariners New York Mets Philadelphia Phillies