Ultratalented Upton on fast track to D-backs

Originally Published: July 8, 2007
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

SAN FRANCISCO -- If Monday is Chris Berman Day and Tuesday belongs to season-ticket holders and corporate fat cats at the All-Star Game, Sunday is the province of scouts and general managers with more long-term horizons.

These guys know their way around a Baseball America Prospect Handbook and can tell a Mobile BayBear from a Montgomery Biscuit.

Two scouts were in the stands watching batting practice Sunday when the discussion turned to Justin Upton, center-field prodigy in the Arizona Diamondbacks' chain. Upton, playing for Arizona's Double-A Mobile club at age 19, was among the youngest players to appear in this year's All-Star Futures Game.

There's only one smudge on Upton's player profile, and it can't be measured on the 20-80 scouts' rating scale. When Upton hit .263 with 12 home runs for South Bend in the Midwest League in his professional debut in 2006, the consensus was that he coasted at times and seemed a little too content to get by on his natural ability.

You can probably file that observation under "passé." Florida's Hanley Ramirez heard similar things as a young shortstop in the Boston chain, and it didn't prevent him from winning the National League Rookie of the Year award in 2006.

"When your bat is that live, I guess people have to pick on something," said an American League scout. "Just ask the general managers who say that stuff what kind of reports their scouts are turning in on him. I think they'd take him."

The ball jumps off his bat. There's an old saying that a kid needs 2,000 at-bats in the minors before you can really form an opinion. Well, I don't think he's going to get any 2,000 at-bats.

-- Don Money, manager of Double-A Huntsville

Upton, the younger brother of Tampa Bay second baseman B.J. Upton, has been the subject of "phenom" talk since he played in the prestigious Area Code Games showcase at 14. The Diamondbacks validated the hype by choosing him first overall in the 2005 draft and signing him to a record $6.1 million bonus.

Upton has proved to be a fast tracker, churning through low-A and high-A ball before graduating to the Southern League in May. He has hit .318 with 13 homers and 52 RBIs in his two stops this season, and generated lots of superlatives for his impressive blend of power, speed and hitting acumen.

"He can hurt you in every way possible," said Jay Bruce, a top prospect in the Cincinnati chain. "If you hit a ball to center field, you better hit it a long way because he has a chance to run it down. And he just hits, period. He does it all."

In spring training, Arizona general manager Josh Byrnes recalled an at-bat in which Upton mis-hit the ball and still drove it 400-plus feet over the center-field fence for a home run. Upton has the kind of fluid swing and natural pop that tend to attract a crowd around the batting cage.

"The ball jumps off his bat," said Don Money, manager of Milwaukee's Huntsville affiliate in the Southern League. "There's an old saying that a kid needs 2,000 at-bats in the minors before you can really form an opinion. Well, I don't think he's going to get any 2,000 at-bats."

If all goes well, the Diamondbacks could bring Upton up for a September cameo and give him a legitimate crack at a starting job next spring. The operative question is, where?

Chris Young is a natural flier in center field, and it's hard to envision the Diamondbacks wasting those wheels in left. Carlos Quentin, who was supposed to have the right-field job locked up by now, is in Triple-A ball trying to work through his problems, and multitalented Carlos Gonzalez is playing in Mobile's outfield alongside Upton.

The Diamondbacks are so awash in young talent, they're considered long shots to re-sign Eric Byrnes, who is having a fine season in his free agent "walk" year.

Scouts agree that Upton has the requisite arm strength to handle right field. He showed it by uncorking a strong throw that elicited plenty of "ahhs" during the U.S. squad's 7-2 loss to the World team Sunday.

That was nothing compared with the charge he put into the crowd in the third inning, when he turned on a 96-mph fastball from White Sox prospect Fautino De Los Santos and hit a tracer into the left-field seats at AT&T Park. The swing made a distinct impression on U.S. team manager Dave Winfield.

"Some other guys hit balls out today that didn't sound like home runs," Winfield said. "That sounded like a home run."

Justin Upton
Larry Goren/Icon SMIIn 84 minor league games this season, Justin Upton is batting .318 with 13 homers, 52 RBIs, 61 runs and 16 steals.
Upton carries himself with the poise of a player who has been around a while, and he clearly has benefited from watching his brother's growing pains in Tampa Bay. B.J. Upton bounced from one position to another before finally settling in at second base for the Devil Rays. He's hitting .320 in 200 at-bats this season.

Justin, selected a year after the Diamondbacks drafted Stephen Drew, switched from shortstop to the outfield and is destined to stay there for the long haul. Right now, it's simply a matter of refinement. He's receiving help in the fine art of outfield play from Mobile manager and former major leaguer Brett Butler.

After fiddling around with a number of stances last year, Upton has concentrated on taking a more consistent approach this season. He also spent a lot of time this past winter working on flexibility drills and other exercises to enhance his durability.

Waiting for the call isn't easy when you're this talented, but Upton is determined to be as close as he can to a finished product when the Diamondbacks decide he's ready. He heard the criticisms after the 2006 season and was determined not to repeat the experience.

"I learned something last year," Upton said. "It was my first full season in pro ball. I'm not using that as an excuse, but I figured some things out that I could fix this year."

The 2005 draft produced a mother lode of outfielders. Upton, Bruce, Detroit's Cameron Maybin, Boston's Jacoby Ellsbury and St. Louis' Colby Rasmus all appeared in this year's Futures Game and are regarded as potential All-Stars if they continue to progress.

The old-timers sure seem to appreciate Upton's game. Arizona coach Kirk Gibson called Upton a "19-year-old sponge" in spring training because of the way he asks questions and retains information, and Winfield predicted big things for the kid down the road.

"I can see why he was drafted high," Winfield said. "He seems to have a feel for the game. I watched him in batting practice and the outfield, and he has the tools. If he keeps his head on straight and listens to folks and continues to grow, he'll be all right."

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer