With the shiny and distracting bauble of the NFL safely back where it belongs, in the box marked "No interest," we can now turn the full focus of our interest back to baseball [sorry to the Coyotes fans out there. Both of you]. Well, except for the four-hour, two night premiere of 24 which continues this evening. I think that will prove a major distraction. And then we've got our film festival coming up this weekend. That might well require a little bit of time - actually, as I type this, I'm dry-running the entire schedule of movies and shorts for test purposes. Then there's the unwatched DVD pile, which I am trying to get down as low as possible before Opening Day.
Yeah, all told, there's plenty of other things as yet. But let's put them aside for now and look at the right-field position or the Arizona Diamondbacks. In 2009, it was (mostly) a pleasure, with Upton taking over the spot from Opening Day, and delivering numbers in excess of what even the most optimistic prognosticator (and that would be me) expected him to produce. Here's to more of the same in 2010? After the jump, we'll see...
You'd likely have got long odds against Justin Upton leading the team in OPS early on in the season: hitless in the first wee, his batting average sat below the Uecker Line until April 26th. However, the hoped-for J-Up then arrived, and posted a line over his next 100 games of .322/.389/.581, with 22 home-runs. He did cool off somewhat in the final month - it probably took a convenient caught-stealing from Gerardo Parra in the ninth inning of the last game, to keep Upton above .300 for the year - but the final numbers were still remarkable ones, for a 21-year old player.
As a couple of yard-sticks to support that, the previous most games for Arizona by a 21-year old position player had been 29, by walkless wonder Jerry Gil in 2004. And only two qualifying NL hitters that age in the past fifty years have delivered a better OPS than Upton's .899 - Cesar Cedeno (.921 in 1972) and Albert Pujols (1.013 in 2001). This was certainly the season when his talent flowered: I can't help thinking it's a shame that the Diamondbacks "wasted" a year of service time on his previous two seasons. They had an OPS+ of 94 combined, and I think that Upton's age-26 season - now likely lost to free-agency - will be rather better than that.
There were, probably inevitably, given his age, a number of mental gaffes that blotted his copybook. The 420-foot single on September 1st, where he stood and watched a hit bounce off the outfield wall, was perhaps the most memorable, but his defense was also occasionally slipshod. Upton's dozen errors was easily the most by a "pure" outfielder in the majors (the next was eight), the majority being mistakes fielding the ball. However, perhaps lost in that was Upton's excellent range. His RngR of +6.2 was best in the National League at the position (min. 1,000 innings), leading to an overall, highly-positive UZR/150 of +8.0. It's all the more remarkable, considering he was drafted as a short-stop, and was mostly a center-fielder in the minors.
There wasn't much opportunity for anyone else at the position. Upton started every game bar two in RF, up to August 5th. That day, he strained his right oblique muscle trying to steal second-base, an injury which lead to him missing three weeks. Alex Romero was the main replacement, but there were also occasional starts through the season in right for Gerardo Parra, Eric Byrnes and Trent Oeltjen. However, 2009 has guaranteed that the right-field corner of Chase will be Upton's playground for some time to come.
|Top Remaining Free Agents|
|Name||Age||2009 Sal.||2009 OPS+|
|Chance of AZ free-agent activity: v.low.|
2010 Depth-chart and Projections
- Justin Upton: .257/.333/.443
- Gerardo Parra: .272/.321/.381
Cole Gillespie: .240/.320/.383
Before you storm SnakePit Towers with torches, let me quickly add that I reckon Upton will certainly hit in excess of .257 this season. The Hardball Times - whose projections these are - is (somewhat understandably) pretty skeptical of 22-year olds in the majors. However, as I said in my piece for the Hardball Times Annual, "If he doesn't beat that, I'll walk naked through the streets of downtown Phoenix (Legal disclaimer: "Naked" is my dog's name)." For comparison, Marcel projects .286/.364/.506, CHONE .296/.372/.515 and the always-sunny Bill James, .293/.371/.534, all at least 100 OPS points higher. This shows why clinging like a crazed pit-bull to a single projection for a single player - good or bad - is a very dumb idea.
While the free-agent pickings are now precariously-low, one does have to wonder if the team may still be intending to check down the back of Josh Byrnes' couch and see if there's enough there to sign a left-over. I mention this, because, while we have credible backups at both left- and center-field, there's not much in right. Obviously, we expect Upton to be there just about every day, but of the four players who did get starts there in 2009, Gerardo Parra is the only who will be about for us in 2010. That said, his 2009 starts in Mobile, before getting called-up, were mostly in RF, and Cole Gillespie also started playing there for Reno, after coming to us from Milwaukee.
There isn't too much more we need to say. Upton's name is more of a lock in the starting line-up than just about anyone, bar possibly Mark Reynolds. Health permitting, I'd be expecting to see his name there 150 or more times this season. The only potential issue is some very large splits for Upton: he totally destroys LHP, to the career tune of .303/.394/.598, while is merely adequate against right-handers (.261/.335/.447). It would be nice to see the latter figure come up 20-30 points in each category. Given his young age - most of his 1st-round contemporaries from 2005 have yet to have more than a cup of coffee in the majors - this is certainly not outside the realms of possibility.
However, any days off he gets will likely be against righties, with Parra taking over on those days. At the present time, it seems likely Gerardo will see his fair share of playing time, since with the dismissal of Eric, he is now the undisputed first reserve at all three outfield positions. Since Oeltjen, Romero and Byrnes are now all gone from the roster, it appears that Gillespie will be the first man onto the bus from Reno, should the need arise.