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B.J. Upton's Future

Listening to the Red Sox radio broadcast yesterday evening, I heard that B.J. Upton made his 40th error at shortstop on the season in Triple-A Durham. If only we had advanced minor league fielding statistics so I could see if it was a matter of sloppy play with range or without range or just miscues and booted balls, etc, but they do not exist. I am going to run a little exercise here comparing B.J. Upton's projected major leagues numbers against those of an average MLB shortstop and outfielder. We will see if his hitting has enough value to merit giving up on playing shortstop and moving to the outfield now.

The average MLB shortstop's numbers through 2005 so far: .276/.327/.410 with a .737 OPS, 9 homeruns, 21 doubles, 4 triples, 12 stolen bases and 4 times caught stealing to go along with 30 walks. B.J. Upton appeared capable of replicating those numbers at age 19 last year:

Upton 2004
.258/.324/.409
AB: 159
HR: 4
2B: 8
3B: 2
SB: 4/5
BB: 15

He is having an excellent (offensive) season at Durham this year:

Upton AAA
.306/.392/.502
AB: 470
HR: 16
2B: 32
3B: 6
SB: 37/46 (80% success)
BB: 66
SecAvg: .396
Iso: .196

Considering the average SecAvg for MLB shortstop is .226, Upton appears more than ready offensively for the job. Let's assume he would reach his 90th percentile PECOTA projection (.317/.393/.512) if he came to the majors and played 100 games. Let's also assume his defense to be 10 runs below average at shortstop during that same span. Is it worth it if you believe he can turn himself into an average outfielder to keep him at shortstop where his bat may be more important? His Net Runs Above Average score for such a 100 game span would be roughly 13 or so. If his defense was worse (let's say a Rate2 of 85) the figure would be only 8; if Rate2 was 95, NRAA would be 18. None of these numbers show greatness, and thats with an extremely impressive showing at the plate helping the cause. If he were an average defensive outfielder, he would be worth 23 NRAA/100 games, or 37.26/162 Games. To put that into perspective, Johnny Damon's current NRAA/162 score is 38.17.

The problem with this move is that the Devil Rays are inundated with young, talented outfielders already. Jonny Gomes, Carl Crawford, possibly Rocco Baldelli again if he heals correctly, Joey Gathright, and in the minors Delmon Young. Trading away some of them for pitching or other positions might be in the mix, but having Upton learn shortstop defensively seems to be their plan in order to keep some of their outfield depth intact, as well as fill a need they have.

Upton could be the best of these outfielders though. Carl Crawford has his uses and potential, and is still only 23, but if he doesn't learn to take a walk he isn't as useful as he could be. Jonny Gomes is the best hitter in the outfield right now with the least amount of plate appearances under his belt. He is only 24. Aubrey Huff should have been traded for something useful, and I'll leave it at that. Gathright is useful, but lacks power. No one knows how Baldelli's ACL injury will affect his speed and movement, possibly slowing him down defensively and on the basepaths forever, taking away one of his biggest strengths as a player. That leaves a spot for Upton to fill until Delmon Young is ready to reach the majors. Young is...ahem...younger than Upton by a year, and is struggling more at AAA, failing to draw walks often enough to inspire confidence in this year. Maybe Upton should be given a shot in the outfield to claim a spot. It would be a horrible thing to eventually have to DH this young phenom, but if it comes to it one of the outfielders is going to have to move there. Let's hope they handle Upton a little better in the shuffling process than they did with Dewon Brazelton between the bullpen, rotation and minors.