30 Questions: How good can Justin Upton be?
Thirty teams, 30 burning fantasy questions. Throughout the preseason, we put one of these questions to an ESPN.com analyst for an in-depth look at the most interesting, perplexing or dumbfounding fantasy facet of each major league team.
The baseball-prospect industry is it an all-time high. Dozens of books and magazines tout the 17- and 18-year-old kids who'll presumably one day dominate both fantasy baseball and the major leagues. Whereas 10 years ago, very few sports fans paid attention to the baseball draft and the rise of minor leaguers through their respective farm systems, now the names "Jay Bruce" and "Phil Hughes" trip off everyone's tongue before they ever see those players play.
And woe betide the ultra-young, ultra-hyped baseball prospect who doesn't instantly go crazy in the big leagues. Suddenly, that poor man is a bust, worthy of our scorn.
Justin Upton was 19 years old when he made his big league debut on August 2, 2007. He was terrible in his 43-game stint that year: .221 batting average, two homers, 11 RBIs, two steals and a .283 on-base percentage in 140 at-bats. As a 20-year old in 2008, he got better: .250/.353/.463, though he stole exactly one base and missed nearly two months with an oblique injury. But now, now we are told, Upton is ready to be a five-tool monster in fantasy leagues.
Too much, too soon. Expecting even a 21-year-old version of Upton to have the polish and consistency of the 23- and 24-year-old guys who've put up solid big-league numbers just isn't realistic. Here's an anecdotal fact of which you might not have been aware: the last player 21 or younger to win either league's Rookie of the Year award was Dontrelle Willis in 2003. The last position player to do it was Albert Pujols in 2001. All the hype for all these very young hitters over the past 10 years, and how many of them delivered great fantasy seasons? C'mon, you've been there: you've drafted Jeremy Hermida and Delmon Young and Colby Rasmus and Andy Marte and Alex Gordon and Howie Kendrick and Adam Jones and Felix Pie and Cameron Maybin and Brandon Wood and Carlos Gomez and do I have to go any further? Many of these men are still going to wind up being very good big league players (are we really ready to call Delmon Young hopeless when he's 23 years old?), but they've been oversold. And I believe anyone telling you Justin Upton is a top-40 fantasy outfielder for 2009 is overselling him, too.
We can't help it. The fantasy culture is a wise guy's culture. To know prospect names that others don't know, to insist some unknown kid is the next David Wright, to scoff at low-ceilinged veterans, to appear to be an insider: this is the fantasy player's panacea. And it's definitely the fantasy "expert's" panacea. Everyone knows Jason Bay. Good player, but he's no longer sexy. We know just what he is, and probably have a firm grasp of what he'll do in Fenway in '09. It's boring for us to recommend him to you, because you already know him. We don't look smart enough. But Justin Upton! He could be Willie Mays!
Listen, I've seen Upton play, I know he's a tremendous physical specimen, that he's got a better batting eye than some might give him credit for, that he's got some raw speed that he obviously hasn't applied on the base paths yet, and that when he makes pure contact with a pitched ball, it screams. I expect he'll stay healthier in this, his second full tour of duty around the big leagues, and his numbers will probably improve, too. I think he eclipses 20 homers this season, maybe scores 75 runs and drives in 75, and maybe even steals 10 bases. That's a really good season, and depending on what his batting average is, it could result in Upton being worth double-digit dollars in an auction draft. But am I putting him ahead of Adam Dunn? Brad Hawpe? Jayson Werth? I am not.
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Think of it this way. The young breakout stars of recent history, guys like Ryan Braun, Evan Longoria, Dustin Pedroia, Hanley Ramirez, Ryan Howard: they all won Rookie of the Year while they were at least two years older than Upton will be in 2009. I'm not saying don't take Justin Upton. I'm just saying don't take him in the sixth round. Hype is the enemy of fantasy glory. Ask Justin's older brother, B.J. Upton, who was an utter fantasy bust for three seasons from '04 to '06 (at ages 19, 20 and 21) before finally breaking out in 2007. Ask Justin's Diamondbacks teammate, Chris Young, who still hasn't hit above .248 entering his third season in the majors (at age 25), but who finally showed progress in August and September of '08.
In a couple of more seasons, Upton may very well be the 30-30 threat many have predicted him to be, an NL MVP candidate with unlimited potential. For 2009, though, history says temper your enthusiasm. Listen, I'm not anti-kid. I'm simply pro-value. And I don't think there's any value taking a guy like Upton as high as you're likely to have to draft him. If he slips to, say, the 40th outfielder selected in your draft? I'm in. If not, don't be the too-clever drafter in your league, and don't fall prey to the wise guys.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy baseball, football and racing analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writing Association award winner across all three of those sports. You can e-mail him here.
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