Tampa Bay Devil Rays
Position: SS Height: 6-3 Weight: 170 Born: 8/21/84 Bats: Right Throws: Right
Most scouts regarded Virginia high school shortstop B.J. Upton as the best available player in the 2002 draft. He ended up going second overall since the Pirates (picking first) were looking for college pitching. The D-Rays were happy to get Upton at the time. They are simply ecstatic now, for he's quickly developed into one of the top all-around prospects in baseball. Upton can do just about everything on the field, and do it well.
In traditional scouting terms, Upton is a five-tool shortstop, a rare bird. From my perspective, Upton looks like he will develop all seven skills: ability to hit for power, hit for average, control the strike zone, show offensive speed, fielding range, arm strength and reliability. About his only major flaw at this point is reliability: he still makes too many errors. But that is common for players his age, and will likely ease with time. Other than that, Upton has no major flaws. He has a quick stroke and hits for average. He controls the strike zone very well. His power is mainly to the gaps now, but he should develop more home run power as he matures physically. He runs very well, and needs only additional experience to be a solid basestealer. He has the arm and range for shortstop. He also has a good work ethic, and exudes confidence on the field. Upton is a complete package, needing only experience to refine his skills.
Upton got off to something of a slow start this spring, not hitting for much of a batting average early, but drawing walks and hitting doubles. He got hot as the weather got warm, putting up solid OBP and batting average numbers at Charleston in the Sally League. After 101 games there, the D-Rays decided to challenge him, moving him up to Double-A and skipping the high-A level altogether. Frankly, I thought this was a mistake at the time. But Upton has, if anything, improved his performance at the higher level, continuing to hit over .300 with decent power, while maintaining his strike-zone judgment. This is remarkable performance for a player who turned 19 last week. There are still some flaws. Upton has made nine errors at shortstop already in Double-A. He strikes out a bit much, and he needs to improve his stealing technique. But his flaws are minor when compared to his overall performance, especially in relation to his age and pro experience level.
Upton has had no significant injury troubles.
What to expect
Predicting what the Devil Rays will do with Upton is difficult; they've been known to rush prospects (Rocco Baldelli for example) before conventional wisdom says they're ready. Conceivably, Upton could be starting for Tampa Bay at shortstop this time next year. His early Double-A numbers don't do much to dispel that idea. He's lighting it up, though of course the sample size is small. My guess is that he'll be ready offensively before he is ready defensively, and that the D-Rays will want him to get more Double-A/Triple-A time under his belt before pushing him to The Show. In any event, whether he shows up in Tropicana Field in '04 or '05, Upton is possibly the best long-term shortstop prospect in the game right now.
John Sickels is the author of the 2003 Baseball Prospect Book, which can be ordered from his Web site, JohnSickels.com. His biography of Bob Feller will be published this fall by Brassey's. He lives in Lawrence, Kansas, with his wife, son, and two cats. You can send John questions or comments at JASickels@aol.com.