SAN DIEGO – It’s not as if Melvin Upton Jr., has suddenly become Bryce Harper or Andrew McCutchen, let’s be clear up front.
But suffice to say, if he played during his two seasons for Atlanta (2013-2014) at the level he’s played for San Diego since then – much less if he’d played as he did for Tampa Bay in his first eight seasons -- well, I’m fairly sure the Braves wouldn’t have felt so compelled to trade him that they included closer Craig Kimbrel in the deal on the eve of 2015 opening day in order to dump Upton’s contract.
After hitting .198 with a .279 OBP, .314 slugging percentage (.593 OPS) with 21 homers and 32 stolen bases in 267 games (1,028 plate appearances) in two seasons for the Braves, Upton has hit .251 with a .316 OBP, .405 slugging percentage (.722 OPS) with 11 homers and 21 stolen bases in 144 games (453 PAs) for the Padres, who opend a three-game series with the Braves on Monday night.
Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman, for one, said he’s not surprised that Upton, at 31, is back playing closer to the level of his Tampa Bay Rays days and has reversed the decline of his two seasons in Atlanta.
“He’s got an athletic skill set that a lot of us don’t have,” Freeman said. “Unfortunately it didn’t work out here (with Atlanta), but when someone works hard – and he’s been working hard to get back on track – we all wish it had happened here, but we’re all happy for him. He looks great.”
Freeman paused before smiling and adding, “Hopefully he doesn’t do that against us, though.”
The Braves will face the Padres again at Petco Park, where Upton had a three-hit, two-homer, five-RBI game against the Braves on Aug. 18, 2015. The Padres swept that three-game series and have a 10-game winning streak against the Braves in San Diego.
“It seems to happen a lot,” Freeman said of Upton’s improvement since leaving the Braves. “We’ve seen a lot of guys do that over the years, they’re struggling and then they go to another team and go off. I don’t know what it was. Unfortunately I wish it happened with us, but it just didn’t happen with us.
“But I’m happy that he’s gotten his career back on track and I hope he keeps going for a lot of years, except for the three games he plays against us this week.”
The trade has turned out OK for the Braves, and could look even better down the line, depending on the future development of young talent they got in the deal or because of the deal.
They got a good season out of center fielder Cameron Maybin, who came in the trade (and was traded to Detroit after the 2015 season) and they got a potential long-term top-half-of-rotation starter in Matt Wisler, plus a competitive-balance draft pick they used to take power-hitting prospect Austin Riley. Also, Kimbrel hasn’t been quite the same dominant force since leaving the Braves.
Still, it’s easy to ponder how different things might’ve been if the Braves had Kimbrel in last year’s bullpen, and what might’ve been if Upton had just played at a level similar to his performance with Tampa Bay before the trade and with San Diego since the deal.
Most in the industry said when the Braves signed Upton to a five-year, $75.25 million contract that they had overpaid. No other known offer for Upton was in the same figurative ballpark as the offer the Braves made him, which he smartly jumped on, signing very early in the free-agent period. It's just that no one expected they had overpaid to such a great extent.
The Braves shed the last three years and $46.35 million of the deal when they traded him to San Diego.
A one-month homer flurry late in 2013 is what helped Upton boost his stats in his final season with Tampa Bay – he had a career-high 28 homers that year after hitting 23 in 2012 – and undoubtedly convinced the Braves to make such a large offer.
His eight-season slash line with the Rays was .255/.336/.422, with three seasons of 42 or more stolen bases, two 80-plus RBI seasons, three seasons with 23 or more homers, and even a .300 batting average in his first full season in 2007. He had become a low-average, low-OBP hitter near the end in Tampa Bay, but the Braves were enticed by his improved power, which they believed would make him a 30-30 (homers/stolen bases) threat for several more seasons.
His average and OPS had eroded in his last seasons with the Rays, but nothing prepared anyone for the precipitous drop-off he experienced in Atlanta, where the Braves’ “dream outfield” of the Upton brothers – Justin in left, Melvin (then known as B.J.) in center – and Jason Heyward didn’t pan out as planned, to say the least.
B.J. Upton hit just .184 with a .557 OPS and minus-1.6 WAR in his first season with the Braves in 2013, and .208 with a .620 OPS and minus-0.5 WAR in 2014.
“When people have talent … some people, sometimes you just have to find the spot that’s comfortable for them,” said Braves outfielder Jeff Francoeur, who is a similar age (32) as Melvin Upton and also a former rooke phenom who experienced early career success, then endured some down years before reviving his career at 31 last season with the Phillies.
“I mean, for two years I pretty much just sucked,” Francoeur said. “I tell you, I did. And I don’t know why. But you knew he had talent, and sometimes it’s just finding it again at a different place. He’s too good and still pretty young, he’s (31) years old. When (former Brave Dan) Uggla went to Washington at the end he was 34, 35, it was a little different. For (Upton) he’s comfortable. That helps.”
After missing much of the first half of the 2015 season with San Diego recovering from a foot injury sustained during spring training with the Braves, Upton hit .259 with a .327 OBP – his best since 2011 – and .429 slugging percentage for a .757 OPS in 87 games with a 1.6 WAR.
This season, he’s hit .243 with a .305 OBP, .381 slugging percentage and a 1.0 WAR in 57 games through Sunday, with six homers, 23 RBIs and 12 stolen bases in 15 attempts.
By the way, he’s fared better through the first one-third of the season than either his brother Justin or Heyward, who are in the first season of monster contracts with Detroit and the Chicago Cubs, respectively.
Justin Upton, after signing a six-year, $132.75 million contract with the Tigers, was batting .220 with a .266 OBP, .325 slugging percentage and just three homers through Sunday, with an American League-leading 76 strikeouts and 13 walks in 214 plate appearances.
Heyward, after signing an eight-year, $184 million deal with the Cubs, hit .223 with a .316 OBP, .299 slugging percentage, two homers, 19 RBIs and seven stolen bases in 48 games through Sunday.
Here's one from the incomparable Tom Waits , off one of his finest early albums, The Heart of Saturday Night.
"SAN DIEGO SERENADE" by Tom Waits
I never saw the sunshine 'til you turned out the light
I never saw my hometown until I stayed away too long
I never heard the melody, until I needed a song.
I never saw the white line, 'til I was leaving you behind
I never knew I needed you 'til I was caught up in a bind
I never spoke 'I love you' 'til I cursed you in vain,
I never felt my heartstrings until I nearly went insane.
I never saw the east coast 'til I move to the west
I never saw the moonlight until it shone off your breast
I never saw your heart 'til someone tried to steal, tried to steal it away
I never saw your tears until they rolled down your face.