Justin Upton was supposed to be Mike Trout.
Taken No. 1 overall in the 2005 amateur draft, Upton was promoted to the big leagues just over two years later by August 2007 at the age of 19, and the world was expected — to a degree rightfully so. While Upton was still a teenager upon arriving in The Show, he didn’t only have all the skills to be successful at that age, but he had key ingredient to bring his offensive skills together: plate discipline.
However, the Major League Baseball and the Arizona Diamondbacks are still waiting for Upton to fulfill that promise.
Throughout his minor-league career, Upton carried an excellent walk rate (particularly for a teenager) of more than 11 percent. The reason that’s important is that it suggests skills — plate discipline and pitch recognition — that can’t be taught, yet are huge indicators of future performance. In essence, an off-the-charts ability to recognize pitches is the reason Trout was able to be so successful and make an immediate impact last year at the age of 20.
But Upton isn’t Trout, if that isn’t already abundantly clear. Even if it was unreasonable to expect much of Upton in his first couple years in the league, he’s now been a major-league regular for five years now, during which time his best seasons were twin 2009 and 2011 campaigns, posting .899 and .898 OPS figures, respectively.
Now, those numbers are nothing to sneeze that, but the problem is that Upton has been maddeningly inconsistent, alternating good seasons with ones barely above league average for a corner outfielder. Moreover, he’s developed a reputation as one of the streakiest players in baseball, and prone to gaffes in right field.
Now, it’s easy to say that it’s unfair to judge Upton against his perceived talent rather than taking his production at face value across the board. The problem is that as the Diamondbacks look to trade their enigmatic outfielder, teams will likely be looking at the 25-year-old’s perceived talent and bidding on that, rather than his body of work.
Say Upton were a free agent this offseason. It’s not very difficult to imagine — especially considering his age — some team extending a long-term offer well into nine figures. However, given that Upton is under team control for another three years at an average of about $12 million per year — a relatively team-friendly contract — it’s the kind of flexibility that makes him look even more attractive, and more likely some team will raid its minor-league system to acquire Upton.
In short, despite his down year in 2012, there are a confluence of factors — from his age to his potential to his contract — that have conspired to make Upton a far more in-demand option than he ought to be. The proponent argument will always be that Upton is just now entering his prime, but, given Upton’s pitch recognition, there’s nothing left for him to “figure out,” per se. Like his brother, B.J., Upton may well have reached his ceiling, however frustrating that prospective reality is.
In short, there’s a strong likelihood that Upton, even at 25, may just be the player he is at this point — a very streaky player who can impact the game in several ways but won’t reach superstar status in any of them.
All this being said, Upton is a player who could help most teams in Major League Baseball, all other factors being equal. But, as we have seen, all those factors are not equal, and the talent some team may well ship out will probably be for the player they want Upton to be, but perhaps not the player there’s a good reason to believe he will be.
By all rights Upton should be a better player than he is, but he’s never shown the ability to be that player save for short flashes of brilliance. Considering the tools — most of all pitch recognition — that we know Upton has, whatever X-factor he’s missing is the difference between unfulfilled talent and Mike Trout.