In 2002, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays selected Melvin "B.J." Upton with the second overall pick in the 2002 MLB Rule 4 Draft. Now, more than 10 years later, B.J. Upton's career with the franchise is reaching its end. As Upton enters free agency for the first time, the 28-year-old has priced himself out of the pay range of the low-budget Rays. He's already turned down the Rays' $13 million-plus qualifying offer, and looks to strike it rich on the open market with a deal for several years and somewhere between $60-$90 million.
Since Carl Crawford left the team for the Red Sox, Upton has really been the standard-bearer for longevity with the Rays franchise. Though James Shields has been with the organization a bit longer (having been drafted back in 2000), Upton had been with the big league club longer than any other serving Ray. As one of the two last holdouts from the "Devil Rays" era, Upton has seemed more a part of the team than any other ballplayer.
As Upton prepares to leave the team, now is as good a time as any to review his overall contributions to the Rays, since he started playing for the team as a 19-year-old in 2004.
Upton was drafted as a shortstop out of Greenbrier Christian Academy in Virginia. As a prospect, he had everything a team could want: potential to hit for both power and average, speed, and there was a chance he could stay an infielder. Immediately after being drafted, Upton found his way to the top of prospect ranking lists, and on the fast track to the majors. But in the minors in 2003, he started to show that perhaps shortstop was not the position for him. After leading the minors in errors in 2003, he made his major league debut on August 2, 2004. When he debuted, he was the youngest player in team history, and remained the youngest player in the majors that season at just 19 years old. During this partial season, Upton played shortstop, third base and left field, hitting four homers in 45 games.
In 2005, Upton returned to the minors for the entire season. While he was the shortstop for the All-Star Futures Game in 2005, the writing was on the wall after that: he wasn't a shortstop any more. By 2006, Upton was a third baseman and back in the big leagues for a short stint. He saw 50 games of action, all of which were at third base. Though his 2004 hitting numbers weren't stellar in that small sample, 2006 proved to be much worse. In addition to uninspired defense at third, Upton's bat failed entirely, as he only posted a .246/.302/.291 slash line.
With 2007 ahead, the Devil Rays resolved to stick with the young infielder, this time as their Opening Day second baseman. Their patience certainly began to pay off, as Upton started the season hitting the cover off the ball. Until suffering a left leg injury in June, he was hitting well, and playing second base ... well, let's just say with max effort. It would be a month before Upton would return, but upon returning he moved to center field, and kept hitting.
He would finish 2007 with his best offensive season: 24 home runs, 22 stolen bases and an overall hitting line that was 37 percent higher than league average. Best of all, once moved to center field, Upton moved from being a terrible defender in the infield to being at least a passable defender in center. He'd found his home on the field.
2008 would eventually be the best season in Rays history, and it would probably be one of Upton's best as well. Though his power disappeared (only nine hr on the season), he stole 44 bases and his walk rate skyrocketed as he played solid defense in center field. And, as the Rays reached the playoffs, Upton's power recovered just in time for the ALDS. Upton hit three home runs in the series against the Chicago White Sox, then four in the ALCS against the Red Sox. Despite his team's loss in the World Series against the Phillies, Upton had a phenomenal playoff run, posting a .406 wOBA and leading his team's offense at the biggest time.
Poised for a breakout in 2009, Upton had, unequivocally, the worst season of his career with the bat. He stole 42 bases, but didn't hit for power like he had in 2007, and didn't get on base very much like he had in 2008. He posted a career-low season WAR by every metric, hit about 15% below league average, and only salvaged his season by playing solid defense in center.
In 2010, a pattern began to emerge. Over the next three seasons, B.J. Upton would be almost the exact same player, three seasons in a row. He'd average 23 home runs and (about) 36 stolen bases, posting about a .328 wOBA. He'd play about league-average defense in center field, and show up for about 630 plate appearances and 150 games. And that's worth about three wins above replacement, better than an average starter, but not quite an All-Star level performer. In center field, that's a very, very valuable player.
It's kind of funny, but if one were to compare Bossman Junior's career hitting numbers to another former Rays outfielder's, they come up looking pretty good. B.J. Upton now has a career wOBA of .333, as compared to Carl Crawford's career number of .335. wRC+, a metric that adjusts offensive contribution for league and park, and then scales it to league-average, puts B.J.'s career mark at 107, while Crawford's is at 104.
A couple of caveats exist here. First and foremost, Crawford -- the quintessential Devil Ray / Ray -- has about 2000 plate appearances on B.J., and deserves credit for keeping up that level of performance over a larger sample. Also, Carl has been considered one of the finest defenders on the planet in left field. B.J. has been hit-or-miss, but mostly "hit" as a center fielder over his career. Center is a much more challenging position than left field, but Crawford's sometimes-transcendent defense in the corner was far more noticeable than Upton's mere "good" in center.
Nevertheless, B.J. is still three years Crawford's junior. And while the talented young outfielder probably won't get anything close to Crawford's
unholy massive seven-year, $142 million contract with the Red Sox, they're not entirely dissimilar players in terms of overall offensive output. Industry projections have Upton getting a contract somewhere near five years and $70-$80 on the upper end. That seems to pose a stark picture, as how a comparable, younger player could receive a contract of about half that overall value while providing similar offensive performance and a small drop off on defense.
B.J. Upton has been a fixture in the Rays lineup since 2006, and an integral part of the team's future since he was drafted in 2002. The only player to have appeared in more games in a Rays uniform is the aforementioned Carl Crawford. And although never earning an All-Star appearance, Upton's been a valuable piece, amassing 23.1 FanGraphs WAR, 13.6 Baseball-Reference WAR, and 17.1 WARi (an indexed-and-scaled WAR value I've developed) over six full seasons and two more partial seasons. B.J. has had two primary factors that account for his value to his team: durability and a consistent above-average level of performance at a critical defensive position.
Though Bossman Junior's performance has priced him out of the Rays' future plans, Rays fans should be thankful that they've had his services at a below-market rate over the past nine years. Though he never completely fulfilled his tantalizing potential (by not staying at shortstop or becoming a truly premier hitter), Upton already sits as one of the five most productive position players in Devil Rays / Rays history. His consistent presence will certainly be missed by fans of the team.