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SnakePit Round Table: Right-Field

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At age 23, Justin Upton will be entering his fourth full season as our starting right-fielder. What are you looking for from him in 2011?

soco: Nothing short of him going into Beast Mode.  Time to step up, Upton.  I mean, I won’t hate him if he doesn’t, but it’s what I’m hoping to see from him.

Kishi: Seconded, I’m looking for a big season from J-Up. I think this is the season where he’ll prove he’s the player the Diamondbacks have always expected him to be. 30+ home runs, 25+ stolen bases, and see his OBP go up while is strike outs drop. Yes, it’s time to be optimistic about baseball, people, and we’ll start with Justin Upton.

Azreous: I think anything less than a breakout year would be a disappointment. Yes, he had a strong 2009, and no, I’m not expecting 40 HRs, 130 RBIs and .300. But the numbers Kishi mentioned would be very nice, not to mention imperative for our team to have any chance of contending in the West this season.

DbacksSkins: Devin’s numbers look good -- we’ve always been expecting great numbers from Upton, something along the lines of a 140 OPS+ as a rate annually. Upton’s 2009 (129) nearly reached that point. If he can do it year in and year out, that’s what we’ve been waiting for. But if that 129 is Upton’s ceiling, that wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.

Jim: I’d like to see something a lot more like 2009 than 2010. It’s still worth noting that he was only 22 for the great majority of last season, so was facing major-league pitching at an age when most of his contemporaries are in A-ball. Based on the standard age curve for hitters, he still has at least five years of improvement ahead of him, which is kinda scary for opposing pitchers. That’s what I want: palpable improvement.

Last season seemed to be a step back for Upton in terms of performance, his OPS dropping by a hundred points. What was the reason, do you think he will turn it around this year, and why?

soco: He had a pretty tough start to the year, so that didn’t help things.  I do think he’ll turn it around, and hopefully he’ll be able to stay healthy for a full season.

Kishi: Yeah, injury time always seems to hinder a player’s progress. I’d think another part of it was the fact that the team seemed to be in one state of upheaval or another for pretty much the entire season. I’m really expecting we’ll see a more settled clubhouse this season, so hopefully that’ll help him to achieve the sort of season we’d like to see out of him.

Azreous: Seemed like a combination of injury and inconsistency. I’m hoping that part of it was pitchers putting together a better scouting report on him, so that he can make the appropriate adjustments this season.

DbacksSkins: I wanna give him the benefit of the doubt and say he just had a bad year, combined with some injury issues. Call it an inevitable "slump" or "regression year" after his breakout 2009. I certainly think he’ll do better this year -- no good reason why, just a feeling.

Jim: What concerns me is he fell back, even though his BABIP was still among the highest in the league, at .354. If that regresses to anything close to league average - and it’s not as if he hits a huge quantity of line-drives (19% for his career, right at the MLB mean) - it could be a problem. But J-Up had a brutal start to the season, hitting .213/.314/.360 in April. From there through the end of August, when he was basically shut-down, he was much better, and batted .288 with an .835 OPS. I do think health was an issue, but we’ll get into that shortly.

Are you concerned by the fact that this will be his fifth major-league season, and he has yet to reach 140 games in a year?

soco: Certainly.  Not that I think there’s a comparison yet, but I can’t help but think of the Mickey Mantle bio I just read.  I’d hate to see a great career become only good, or an unprecedented career become only great by a compounding list of injuries.

Kishi: Of course. His shoulder has been a nagging problem on and off for a few years now, and so it’s pretty much always going to be in the back of our minds as something to be concerned about. Hopefully, it’s something the team is keeping a very close eye on, and they can work to keep it from becoming an even worse problem.

Azreous: A little, but not really. His injuries haven’t exactly been huge, and a couple were more flukes than anything. Upton doesn’t even need his full athleticism to be a monster. That said, it’d be nice if he could post around 150 this year, given a day off here and there.

DbacksSkins: Somewhat, but in another sense, this is almost a self-fulfilling prophecy. The team has been extremely careful with Upton, treating him with kid gloves, because they’re scared to death that he’ll suffer a bad injury and damage or even ruin his career. For example, the team acknowledged that they were shutting him down early this year since we weren’t contending. That was the case in 2009, too.

Now, if Upton’s shoulder injury (reportedly suffered in Spring Training 2006) continues to nag him this year, I’ll take notice, although I don’t expect to contend this season. However, if we’re fighting hard in 2012 and the team shuts him down again, I’ll worry.

Jim: At least avoided the oblique strains which sent him to the DL in both 2008 and 2009, but ending the year with the news of a small labral tear in his left shoulder was a blow, especially since was apparently the result of an almost five-year old injury. At least it’s his non-throwing arm, but I hope the "strengthening program" he was supposedly on over the winter does the trick. I would like to see him go through a year with no issues; it’d make me feel more confident about that long-term contract.

What are the strengths and weaknesses of Upton’s game?

Kishi: I think a lot of Upton’s strengths are his physical ability. He’s got good speed and strength. Conversely, his main weaknesses seem to be in his head, but I think he’s made progress on those in his time in the majors.

Azreous: He’s a physical specimen in a sport that doesn’t reward it as much as others. Good speed, good power, good leaping ability. A continuing weakness seems to be his inexperience, although he’s running out of time for that to be an excuse anymore. He has improved his read and jump out in the outfield with the time he’s had in the bigs, and hopefully that will continue.

DbacksSkins: Strengths? HE’S THE JUSTIN UPTON. He’s big, strong, and fast -- built more like a linebacker than an outfielder, with the athleticism to play free safety. He has better physical tools than 97% or so of major league baseball players, and he’s still got youth on his side, too.

Weaknesses? Inexperience, still, and he sometimes seems to try too hard -- he places high expectations on himself and seems to get extremely frustrated when he doesn’t perform up to his own standards. His speed, on both sides of the game, is still raw -- he’s not as "smart" or instinctive a baserunner as Chris Young or the now-departed Mark Reynolds. He’s a burner in the outfield, but sometimes takes bad angles. That’s rapidly disappearing, though, and most systems ranked him one of the most valuable defensive outfielders in the game last year.

Jim: His raw tools are very good. As noted, he is handling major-league pitching better than most players, without anything like as much experience. I think the lack there is definitely a weakness; simply the never-ending battle between pitchers and hitters, each perpetually adjusting to get the upper-hand. He does sometimes need to play smarter, not harder. There seem to be occasions when a red mist descends: if he’s at the plate, he starts trying to smack everything out of the park, and in the field, that’s when the Jupzooka misfires.

Has the lack of a veteran ‘mentor’ in the Arizona outfield since Upton arrived perhaps been a problem?

Kishi: It certainly hasn’t helped any. For all the talk of players signed over the past few years for their veteran presence, I’ve never felt like we saw much leadership on the field out of most of them. Of course, given the amount of time I’ve spent in the clubhouse (a five minute walkthrough at FanFest a few years back) I could be very wrong in this, but it’s how things have looked from the stands. I think Upton’s got the talent, and he’s got people who’ll show him how to play the skills, but one of the things that has been skimmed over has been a lot of the things outside of the field of play- dealing with the fans, the length of the season, that sort of thing.

Azreous: I don’t really care about "veteran presence," per se, because winning trumps that. The Rays are a pretty easy, recent example of that -- most of those players were extremely raw, but talented, and everyone seemed to get along just fine while winning 90 games. However, in terms of player development, probably. It seems like Upton would have gotten a lot more perspective and teaching from, say, Gonzalez and Finley being on the roster when he came up than equally young folks like Carlos Quentin and Chris Young.

DbacksSkins: His lack of a "veteran mentor", I’m sure, is more an issue in the heads of observers than in any real sense exhibited in his performance.

Jim: I think it would probably have speeded up the learning process. Upton will get there eventually, but it’s worth bearing in mind that he was a short-stop when drafted, so played barely 200 career games in the outfield before his major-league debut there. And when he came up, the ‘veteran’ in our outfield was Eric Byrnes. Not sure how much "mentoring" I’d want Upton to get.

Do you think the trade talk over the winter will affect him, and do you see it resurfacing at the deadline?

Kishi: I don’t see it as too likely to affect him- most of it seemed to be teams inquiring, and the Diamondbacks shrugging and saying, "Well, we won’t stop you from asking." I’d be a little surprised if it came up at the trade deadline- again, I’m assuming we’re keeping Upton unless Towers gets an insane offer, and it seems less likely that someone would be willing to do that. Probably easier to get another player on a shorter contract for fewer prospects.

Azreous: I doubt it. Upton has a good head on his shoulders, and there were never really any serious rumors. I’m hoping that it actually motivates him a little -- either from the "teams weren’t as interested as they should have been" angle or the "so, I’m not untouchable? We’ll just see about that" side of things.

DbacksSkins: Given that Upton tweeted, during the midst of the swirling trade talks, "So, anyone hear any good trade rumors lately? LOL" I don’t think it’s getting to him. Dunno if he asked Kevin Towers about it, but if he did, I’m sure he said something along the lines of, "Look. Kid, we’re only trading you if we can get, like, three Justin Uptons back." So long as we’re not competing, (and we won’t be) there’ll be some talk at the trade deadline, but I don’t think anything comes out of it. As Azreous mentioned, I’d like to think that it just pumps up Upton to do even BETTER this year.

Jim: Yes, I think it may even have a positive effect, removing the "untouchable" security blanket from around his shoulders. Combine that with the long-term contract, and it could potentially have led to complacency - albeit more probably of the unconscious kind, in Upton’s case. I think we'll see a new focus from him.

Why do you think there’s an element of Diamondbacks’ fandom who are totally resistant to Upton?

Kishi: He’s young, getting paid a lot of money, and hasn’t outplayed our wildest hopes yet. There’s always going to be a faction of the fandom that complains about a player. And, yeah, I think there are some for who the complaint comes down to his skin color, whether they admit it to themselves or not. It’s unfortunate that this is the case in the early 21st century, but Star Trek assures me that things will be better in a few centuries.

Azreous: Yes, in part because of unrealistic expectations on an individual level and in part because of the team’s lack of success the past three seasons. Upton is one of the first players that comes to mind to the casual fan when they consider the Diamondbacks, and with the team floundering, fans are expecting more. He also has a bit of Stephen Drew Syndrome, in that he mostly keeps an even keel and doesn’t show much emotion, win or lose. To some, that comes across as apathy.

DbacksSkins: He’s black. There, I said it. There are some fans that will view him differently because of that, as awful as it may sound. This is Arizona.

Beyond that, some people criticize him for "not diving for the ball", like Eric Byrnes; never mind the fact that he doesn’t NEED to dive for the ball because he’s got scorching speed.

Some folks just don’t like the hype, especially since he hasn’t quite been the second coming of Albert Pujols yet. I don’t think the Dbacks’ FO did him any favors last year by pushing him to be the Face Of The Franchise(R) before he was ready.

Jim: I think the long-term contract put off some people, as it was perceived to be before Upton had truly "justified" it. The bad errors he used to make in the outfield are what people remember, not the cases where a great jump turned extra-bases into an apparently-easy out. That’s part of it too: a lot of the time, you get the sense Upton doesn’t even need to try, and that came across as ‘laziness’ to some people. Even Google, who had this helpful suggestion for me, when I was searching earlier for info on his labrum...


He’s probably not helped by his brother BJ’s reputation in this area, though I think we definitely got the better Upton. Does race play a part? Well, let’s just say, no-one is ever going to call Justin "scrappy." 

Yes or no. Will he be an All-Star in 2011?

Kishi: Yes.

Azreous: Head says no, heart says yes.

DbacksSkins: Yes.

Jim: Signs point to yes.