Name: Justin Upton
Position: Center Field
History: His name is Justin Upton. Perhaps you've heard of him. You might know him as the best all-around athlete of the 2005 draft. You may remember him as the 18-year old who went 2-for-4 against major league pitching in spring training last year. You probably expected him to hit .400 at the lower minor league levels and get promoted to Double-A by the All Star Break.
It turns out that all this 18-year old phenom did was lead his team to the postseason as one of the best hitters on the South Bend Silverhawks and learn a new defensive position. That's not enough to meet some people's expectations, but it impressed Silverhawks manager Mark Haley, who has seen too many top athletes lack the character traits to succeed in professional baseball.
"Sometimes they get caught up in the accolades and accomplishments and they don't really concentrate as far as what they have to go after," explained Haley. "You always see guys with outstanding hand speed, good arm, good speed, and aptitude for the game. But what's more impressive is his character: his relationship with players and his relationship with coaches. Those are neat when you see a kid that's got that much ability that has those types of qualities."
Justin Upton didn't set out to make headlines or put up gaudy numbers in 2006. He knew that those would both come in due course. What he set out to do was to learn what it takes to succeed in pro ball, improve every facet of his game, and help his team win. And he met each and every one of those goals.
Batting and Power: "He's built like a 25-year old," hitting coach Todd Dunwoody gaped. "He can hit, there's no question about it."
The scary part is that now at the age of 19, Upton is still going to get a lot stronger than he already is. The encouraging part is that he's not the type of power hitter that uses a big, long swing at the plate to hit the ball even harder than he needs to. Upton exhibits very little motion with the bat and remains balanced throughout his swing. This sort of approach is very conducive to making consistent contact and driving the ball to all fields. The power will come naturally without his having to swing overly hard.
Upton's one weakness so far is that he is completely unable to pick up the ball from left handed pitchers. In over 100 at bats against them last season, he hit a buck seventy-five with just one homer. But realizing this weakness with the savvy of a veteran, he was able to work the count and induce an unusually high number of walks from southpaws.
Baserunning and Speed: Upton's willingness to take a walk is a pleasure to see, since with his speed he may not be asked to hit third in the order for his entire career. Right now, there's no reason to want Upton to try and steal 40 bases a year and risk some kind of injury. The organization wants a better idea of the kind of power he's going to develop before they groom him as a table-setter.
Nevertheless, Upton was aggressive on the bases last year, a philosophy that his manager encourages. He got thrown out more often than you'd like to see from someone as fast as Upton is, but his grasp of basestealing is about average for his age.
Defense: Upton's raw speed was as much of a factor in the decision to convert him from a shortstop into a center fielder as the presence of Stephen Drew was. Also considered was the fact that the learning curve for center field is shorter than the learning curve for shortstop, and the organization wants to make certain that his defense can keep pace with the accelerated rate with which his bat will take him through the system.
According to Haley, Upton stopped making the mistakes that a player out of position makes by mid season, and was then at a similar skill level to an average outfielder at low-A ball. This is even more impressive when you consider that he sat out most of April with an injury. It took him about two months to learn the ropes in center field. It looks like we can add "coachable" to his list of positive character traits.
Tools wise, he has a plus arm, and even average range will see him getting to more than enough balls with his lightning speed.
Prediction: This part's easy: Justin Upton's going to be a star player in every facet of the game. He'll likely remain in the number three hole to allow him to drive in some runs with all of the extra base hits that he'll amass.
Major League Clone: Vernon Wells
ETA: The Tampa Bay Devil Rays took their time with Justin's older brother, B.J., and they didn't really have anyone blocking his way as the Diamondbacks somewhat do with Chris Young in center field. However, B.J.'s development has been something of a disappointment, and Justin could force the team to move him up a bit more quickly with some impressive numbers.
But even with Upton's seemingly major league ready physique and terrific psychological makeup, it would be lunacy not to let a high school draftee play three full years in the minors, especially with Chris Young not eligible to become a free agent for several seasons yet. So while we might see Upton as a September callup in 2008, he's not going to truly arrive until 2009 at the earliest.
Read more from Keith Glab at BaseballEvolution.com