Over the 162-game season, an Upton drove in 96 runs for the Braves. That’s not a bad number for one player. Trouble is, the Braves have two Uptons, both of whom arrived to great ballyhoo, neither of whom fully delivered on his vast potential in Year 1 with his new team.
Justin Upton, the younger of the brothers, managed two torrid months — 12 homers and 19 RBIs in April, 11 and 18 in August — but was tepid the rest of the time. B.J. Upton was wall-to-wall terrible — on only one day of the regular season did his batting average reach even .200 — and his inclusion on the postseason roster isn’t a sure thing.
Justin Upton was landed via trade from Arizona on Jan. 24, almost two months after the Braves made his brother the richest free-agent signee (at $75 million over five seasons) in team history. Together, the Uptons were set to earn $22 million this season. Together, they were seen as the new faces of a franchise that lost longtime touchstone Chipper Jones to retirement. But Justin Upton was only pretty good in 2013, and his brother was — according to FanGraphs’ WAR (wins above replacement) rating of minus-0.6 — the fourth-worst everyday player in the National League.
The most glaring numbers amassed by the Uptons as Braves weren’t home runs, RBIs or stolen bases. They finished fourth and fifth among NL players in strikeouts. (Dan Uggla, who’s another matter entirely, was third.) And now you’re saying: “Those whiffs are a symbol of what these big-name Upton acquisitions turned out to be — a huge swing and a bigger miss.”
And here’s where I, contrarian that I am, say, “Not so fast.”
I’m not so contrary that I’m disputing the numbers. B.J. Upton had a wretched season, and Justin Upton underperformed relative to capabilities. (In many categories, he was outdone by Chris Johnson, considered a trade ride-along, and he drove in 12 fewer runs than Martin Prado, shipped to Arizona in the deal.) But let’s return to the offseason, when the Braves embarked on the post-Chipper era and the Washington Nationals imported Denard Span, Dan Haren and Rafael Soriano. The Braves needed to do something to show us — and themselves — that they conceded nothing.
Said Braves general manager Frank Wren on the day Justin Upton was introduced: “You only had to look down in the stands and see the number of No. 10 jerseys (Jones’ number) to know whose team it was. We knew we were going to be transitioning, and we were looking for that player throughout the winter. And quite frankly, in free agency we didn’t find that young superstar player that you could wrap your arms around and say, ‘This is a key building block for the future.’ That’s what made this trade so intriguing for us.”
When the team arrived at Lake Buena Vista, Fla., for spring training, the emphasis wasn’t on the third baseman the Braves had lost, but on the two gifted outfielders they gained. As Brian McCann, who played alongside Jones since 2005, said in spring training: “Anytime you add the players we did, you’ve got to feel good. We’ve got two potential 30-30 guys.”
No, the reality didn’t match the hype. The Uptons together managed 36 homers (27 by Justin) and 20 stolen bases (12 by B.J.). But Justin Upton’s strong April — he was the National League player of the month — helped turn the believing of spring into a flying start to the for-real season, and by the time he cooled, the Braves had stolen a march on the Nationals and were headed for their first National League East title since 2005.
Even as we concede that the Uptons have been a disappointment to date — actually, one has been an outright dud — we also must note that neither is a lost cause. Both were beset by swing issues and minor injuries this season. Neither has yet turned 30. This being baseball, hope springs eternal.
Just because 2013 didn’t go well doesn’t mean the years ahead can’t and won’t. As an example, we offer Jayson Werth: He left Philadelphia after the 2010 season to sign with the Nationals for $127 million over seven seasons. In Year 1 in D.C., Werth was almost worthless: He hit .232 over 150 games and had a WAR rating of 1.3. This season he hit .318 with a WAR rating of 4.6.
Speaking in September of the elder Upton, Wren said: “We all know B.J. is disappointed with the way the year has gone, but he’s not the first free agent to have a tough first year.”
As for Justin: “He has been a big part of our offense all year. When we have him going, we’re capable of putting up big numbers.”
Not to put too fine a point on it, but the Braves have way too much invested in the Uptons to give up after a year. B.J. is under contract through 2017, Justin through 2015. There’s ample time for them to find themselves here, and it’s not as if their struggles doomed the team around them. A check of the standings shows that the Braves still won 96 games and finished first in their division.
And now the postseason is at hand, a time in which one moment can resonate for decades. If Justin Upton hoists the home run that wins the pennant, if B.J. Upton scores the run that decides the World Series, our view of their first seasons as Braves will change. We’ll see them as proud pros who fought through frustration to deliver in the month that matters most.