- Eddie Matz
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The year is 2001. In China, it's the year of the snake. In my fantasy baseball league, it's the year of living ignorantly (again). That means a 21-year-old future Hall of Famer spends the first week of his rookie season rotting away on the waiver wire despite hitting .348 with a homer and eight ribbies while playing three different positions for the defending NL Central champs. On the eighth day of the season, I finally pick up Albert Pujols and cruise all the way to the title.
Man, I miss the old days.
Today, thanks to high-speed Internet access, real-time cell phone updates and electric cars that manage your fantasy squad while you sleep (well, surely they're coming), there are no secrets. A guy like Pujols gets snagged in the 3.9 seconds it takes for his first major league dinger to travel from home plate to the leftfield bleachers. If not sooner.
Last year, my league commish drafted Royals rookie Alex Gordon in the seventh round. We all thought he was nuts, and in fact it turned out to be a horrible pick. But the truth is, those are the kinds of kamikaze moves you must make to have a chance at fantasy gold these days. So as we stand at the precipice of the 2K8 season—or, as we at The Mag are calling it, the Year of Living Dangerously—go ahead and anchor your staff with Francisco Liriano and his bionic elbow. Draft five middle relievers and zero closers. Build your offense around a one-year wonder like the Rays' B.J. Upton. Want to live doubly dangerously? Grab B.J.'s little bro, Justin, who hit all of .221 as a rookie outfielder for the D-backs last season.
"It'd be crazy as hell to draft us," B.J. says as he swings a lob wedge in the living room of Justin's Phoenix condo five days before the Super Bowl. "But it'd be even crazier not to draft us." This is the kind of swagger that comes from being one of only five big leaguers in 2007 to hit .300, belt 20 homers and swipe 20 bags. Amazing thing is, this time last year, that swagger was nowhere to be found.
"B.J. had a lot of doubt in his mind," says Rays manager Joe Maddon. The kid also had more than a few mental scars. In 2004, he was rushed to the majors just two years after being drafted No. 2 overall. A scrawny 19-year-old tools freak charged with saving a struggling franchise, Upton couldn't even save his own job. After committing seven errors in 16 games at shortstop, he spent the next couple years shuttling between Durham and Tampa, between short and third. No matter where he played, errors followed. Lots of 'em—99 to be exact. "He was so concerned with not making mistakes that it was affecting his offense," Maddon says.
Upton needed a fresh start. So last year Maddon tried to relieve some of the pressure on his young talent by shifting him to second base. It worked. Upton hit .325 the first two months of the season and was likely going to be an All-Star until a pulled quad cost him 29 games. During his rehab, he was asked by Rays exec VP Andrew Friedman if, upon his return, he'd mind subbing in center for the oft-injured Rocco Baldelli. Upton's response? "No problem." But he wanted to make one thing clear: "No going back and forth. Either make me a second baseman or make me a centerfielder."
Just like that, Melvin Emmanuel Upton (B.J. stands for Bossman Junior, a shout-out to dad Manny's longtime nickname) had a new home. As relaxed as he was at second, he felt even better in center. "Your only job is to run down balls and get 'em back in," B.J. says. Who cares that an AL scout says Upton takes bad routes on one of every four balls hit his way? "To be honest, most of the time I'm out there, I'm just worried about hitting," Upton admits.
Music to a fantasy GM's ears. And in a cybersport in which D is nothing more than the first letter of D-R-A-F-T, you have to love that Maddon has Upton batting fourth heading into spring training. What's more, unlike most cleanup hitters, the speedy Upton—who swiped 46 bags in just 106 Triple-A games in 2006, and who last year stole home against the Angels' Kelvim Escobar—has a standing green light. As Maddon says, "I don't know that 50 steals is out of reach for him."
So while your fellow fantasy dorks will shy away from B.J. because a) he isn't exactly a proven vet, b) he whiffed 154 times in just 548 plate appearances and c) he plays for the Rays, you are hereby instructed to pounce on him in the first five rounds. Why? Because a) he has multiposition eligibility, b) he's at peace with his whiffs ("I'm gonna give you at least 100 every year. As long as I hit .300, I don't give a damn") and c) it is the Year of Living Dangerously.
Of course, when your little brother is Justin Upton, living dangerously comes naturally. "He's always been a hothead," B.J. says. One time, fifth-grader Justin gave eighth-grader B.J. a bloody nose just for waking him from a nap. Whenever the two boys played ball in the backyard of their Chesapeake, Va., home, an overmatched Justin would invariably quit and storm into the house, only to have his father send him back out. It was one of the few times Justin has listened to authority. His dad even nicknamed him Chucky after the evil doll from Child's Play. "He always had to have the last word," says Manny Upton, a former baseball and football star at Norfolk State who now refs Conference USA basketball. "He challenged you on everything."
Including Manny's coaching. While the spray-hitting B.J. soaked up his pop's hit-the-other-way mantra, pull-hitting Justin never really got the memo. "By the time I figured it out, I was already too far gone," Justin says. "I was yanking everything." Good thing, too, because otherwise it would be near impossible to tell him and B.J. apart on the diamond.
The first pair of brothers in MLB history to be taken with the top two picks of the draft (Justin was No. 1 in '05), Manny's boys have taken virtually identical paths to the Show. B.J. was called up on Aug. 1, 2004, at the age of 19 years, 346 days. Last Aug. 2, Justin was called up at 19 years, 342 days. When B.J. made his debut, he had 857 minor league at-bats under his belt; Justin had 823. B.J.'s OPS in those ABs was .862; Justin's was .853. During his initial 45-game stint, B.J. had 8 doubles, 2 triples, 4 homers and 12 RBIs. In 43 games last season, Justin had 8 doubles, 3 triples, 2 homers and 11 RBIs. Spooky.
That's not to say the two don't have their differences. At 6'3" and 185 pounds, B.J. is more fluid and has the quicker first step. Listed at 6'3" (generously) and 205 pounds, Justin is more powerful and boasts higher top-end speed. "He's got me on the bases," says Justin, who swiped a not-too-shabby 34 bags in 216 minor league games. "But when it comes to running down balls in the outfield, I got him."
Although both Uptons are projected as 30-plus homer guys, Justin's short, compact swing produces more line-drive bombs, while B.J.'s longer, smoother cut leads to more traditional big flies. Justin reminds scouts of Andruw Jones; B.J. draws comparisons to Alfonso Soriano. Justin has nightmares about John Smoltz ("Didn't touch one ball against him"); B.J. is allergic to Félix Hernández ("Even his slider is in the 90s").
But perhaps the biggest distinction between the two brothers is opportunity. B.J.'s bitter cup of coffee in 2004 resulted in a ticket to Durham. Justin, who botched two fly balls in his first five big league starts, is now house-hunting in Phoenix thanks to an off-season deal that sent outfielder Carlos Quentin to the White Sox and opened up the D-backs' starting rightfield gig. "They told me it's my job to lose," Justin says. "I don't plan on losing it."
Where he'll hit is another story. After the younger Upton batted everywhere but leadoff and cleanup as a rookie, it's anybody's guess where manager Bob Melvin—he of the 146 different batting orders last season—will slot Justin. "He'll probably start off down in the order," says D-backs hitting coach Rick Schu. "But by the end of the year, he could be hitting in the middle of the lineup."
Hmm … sounds like someone we know.
Does that make Justin Upton an early or even middle-round pick in your draft? Hardly. But when the late rounds roll around and everyone is trolling for fifth outfielders and playing it safe with Geoff Jenkins, Jacque Jones and the rest of beigeball's biggest bores, remember that this is 2008. In China, it's the year of the rat. In America, it's the year of the election. And in fantasy baseball, in case you forgot, it's the Year of Living Dangerously. So go tell your electric car to fetch you a second helping of Upton. And the second coming of Pujols.
For all you know, they may be one and the same.
Year after year, you're the smartest owner at your draft—and year after lousy year, your team fails to bring home the loot. Time to shake things up. You can start by grabbing the Upton brothers, who promise to make you look like a genius.