B.J. Upton, through Friday’s game, is 1-for-16 with no walks and 9 strikeouts. This after a season in which he hit .184/.268/.289 in 446 plate appearances. So Upton’s hit .179/.261/.280 in 462 plate appearances with the Braves. With the Rays, B.J. was not a superstar, hitting .255/.336/.422 in 4,063 plate appearances in Tampa, but he was a solid player, considering he played a decent centerfield for most of his Rays career. (B.J. actually came up a shortstop and played some secondbase and thirdbase before settling in in centerfield.)
From a scouting perspective, B.J. has always had impressive tools. He was never going to hit for a high average but he had average power or something close. He’s always had good speed. His glove and instincts were good enough to at least play shortstop throughout the minors and a little in the majors, and obviously the Rays had enough confidence in his speed and defense to stick him in centerfield. B.J. has a slender, athletic build, not exactly the type of body that one would expect would cause his skills and athleticism to diminish at age 28.
B.J. has never been a great hitter. His value came from his power and speed; basically his athleticism made him a valuable player. He didn’t have much room for error because he was never plus in the hitting department. For whatever reason his performance in Atlanta has slipped, once it did, he became noticeably bad, at least at the plate. I think this is because he didn’t have much room for error to begin with.
So when is it time to pull the plug? Well, B.J. is signed through 2017 and will make between $13.45 million and $16.45 million in each of his remaining seasons with the Braves. It would be naive to think this is not a factor in playing time decisions, however, I think it’s easy to over-blow it as a factor. Upton has handled his struggles and his benchings professionally, even his playoff benching last season. The Braves do not have to handle him with kid gloves, if they want to give him an extended period of days off, it seems. They could approach it as, “we have four more seasons to go, so take a mental break for a while.” The amount of time left on his contract might actually allow the Braves less pressure to keep him in the lineup virtually every day, this early in the contract.
Plus, frankly the Braves don’t have a whole lot of good options as alternatives to running B.J. out there and hoping for the best. I like Jordan Schafer as an extra outfielder but he has a career 70 OPS+. Last year he earned rave reviews for his performance…with an OPS+ of 86. Ryan Doumit has played catcher and outfield in his career. They could put him in a corner spot and move Heyward to centerfield. However, he’s a catcher by trade. There’s Gattis and Pastornicky, probably worse options than Doumit, which is saying something.
Another thing to consider: it’s easy to forget that the Braves are loaded, because of the focus on the poor seasons from B.J. and Dan Uggla. But they won 96 games last season with Dan Uggla posted an 83 OPS+ and B.J. posted a 53 OPS+. When you have offensive talents like Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward and Justin Upton, plus a lineup full of other players who can hold their own among others at their positions, there is less incentive to be impatient with players like B.J. and Uggla.
Yes, B.J. Upton has been terrible with the Braves, at least offensively. But it wasn’t that long ago that he was at least pretty good with the Rays, and the change seemed to happen overnight, basically. As tempting as it is to say that after 130 games with Atlanta, this is who he is, the truth is it is still only 130 games, he’s still only 29, and he’s still that slender, athletic centerfielder. It would be easy to pull the plug if he was some doughy, unathletic firstbaseman with a terrible body who fell off the performance cliff as soon as he signed the contract with the Braves. It’s a little tougher when you have an athletic centerfielder who is not that old and who has a track record of solid performance, and the team has a record of 99-67 over the course of his Braves career, tied with St. Louis and Boston for the best records in the majors.