Justin Upton’s Future

Yesterday, in the post about the players who have had comparable seasons to Matt Wieters Double-A performance last year, one commenter brought up Justin Upton, who didn’t have a chance to have a comparable performance because he got himself to the majors as a 19-year-old. And, since I angered a lot of D’Backs fans the other day, I figured I’d make it up to you by presenting the list of MLB players who have made it to the majors (and got at least 100 AB) at age 20 or younger since 1980, and how their MLB careers ended up shaking out.

Here’s the list of players.

Roberto Alomar – Hall Of Famer
Adrian Beltre – All-Star
Miguel Cabrera All-Star/Maybe HOF
Luis Castillo – All-Star
Wil Cordero – Useful Role Player
Carl Crawford – All-Star
Ken Griffey Jr. – Hall of Famer
Gregg Jeffries – All-Star
Andruw Jones – All-Star
Jose Lopez – Useful Role Player
Lloyd Moseby – Useful Role Player
Jose Oquendo – Useful Role Player
Aramis Ramirez – All-Star
Edgar Renteria – All-Star
Jose Reyes – All-Star
Alex Rodriguez – Hall Of Famer
Gary Sheffield – All-Star/Maybe HOF
Ruben Sierra – Useful Role Player
B.J. Upton – All-Star
Justin Upton – ?

That’s a ridiculous list of talent. This shouldn’t be a huge surprise, though – there’s perhaps no better proxy for talent level than ability to rise through the minors rapidly. If major league teams can become convinced of a player’s ability before his 21st birthday, he’s probably going to have a career somewhere between All-Star and Hall Of Famer.

That’s especially true if you display power at a young age and can still get to the majors quickly. Guys like Luis Castillo, Edgar Renteria, and Jose Reyes aren’t very good comparisons for what Justin Upton will likely become – instead, his comparables are more in the Beltre/Sheffield/Cabrera/Sierra/Ramirez range. When Ruben Sierra is your downside, and Gary Sheffield is your upside, you’re a pretty fantastic young player.

Don’t let his struggles in the second half deter you from realizing that Justin Upton is one of the premier talents in all of baseball. The odds are very good that he’s going to be a superstar.

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Dave is a co-founder of USSMariner.com and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.

35 Responses to “Justin Upton’s Future”

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  1. Jacob Jackson says:

    Great post and list, Dave.

    Another thing that’s fascinating about Upton is the fact that, at this point, he projects to reach free agency at a remarkably young age – 26.

    I think that would make him the youngest position-player free agent since A-Rod became one at age 25.

    It’s very rare for a player to enter free agency before he’s even reached the start of his theoretical peak. That’s part of why I anticipate Upton becoming the second player in history to earn a $200M contract.

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  2. Lucky Strikes says:

    Great post about Upton. He will explode at some point, hopefully sooner than later. Another proof is the information available on HitTracker. From what I can tell, Justin Upton hits the ball harder and farther than any other player in the game. I think Matt Holliday was second, but when a 21 year old is hitting balls further than Adam Dunn with consistency, you’ve got a big time talent on your hands…

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  3. rwperu34 says:

    I did a list similar to this before last season, only my cutoff was 300 PA. It gets even more ridiculous.

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  4. John Northey says:

    Even more impressive is that the non-All-Stars actually were except for one. Sierra was an All-Star 3 times, Cordero, Lopez, Moseby were all one time All-Stars while Jose Oquendo is the lone non-All-Star on the list (a 112 OPS+ at 2B didn’t get him to the game in ’89).

    Part of why I (and most Jay fans) are so high on Travis Snider who got 80 PA’s (with a 112 OPS+) before he turns 21 on Monday and is penciled in as the Jays DH/LF for 2009.

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  5. Bill says:

    Ruben Sierra was a 4 time all star, not a “Useful role player” — LLoyd Moseby’s career is probably a better choice to describe his floor.

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    • Dave Cameron says:

      Ruben Sierra wasn’t an all-star – he just kept getting put on the team by people who didn’t realize he was pretty overrated.

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      • rwperu34 says:

        Sierra was a pretty good fielder in his early years with a hose from RF. At his peak, he was definitely an all star caliber player. That kind of gets lost because his decline was early and rapid, but yet he still managed to stick around for a couple of decades.

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      • Daniel says:

        You don’t think Sierra earned an all-star slot in 1989, when (at age 23) he hit .306 with 78 XBH good for a 146 OPS+? He had the 4th highest OPS in the league, and the highest amongst OFs. Just because he wasn’t good in the late 90s doesn’t mean he wasn’t a serious star in the 1980s

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      • Dave Cameron says:

        There’s a difference between being an all-star and having an all-star season. Sierra had a couple of good years (’89 being the obvious one) and a bunch of mediocre ones. That’s a useful role player.

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      • Green Giant says:

        Are you confusing Ruben Sierra with Gregg Jefferies — who made the all-star team during his two good years and coasted on baseball-card hype the rest of his role-player career?

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    • Daniel says:

      Lloyd Moseby was also awfully good for quite a while – He was a starting OF for 11 years, including for some strong Blue Jay teams. It just took him a bit of time to get going, and he fell hard at age 28, but his career OPS+ was still 102 over 5815 ABs – not bad at all.

      Sierra was also one of the best players in the game in his 20s – and though he didn’t do much once he turned 30, still doesn’t make him a useful role player. At the start of his career he was a legitimate star – at the end of it, he was close to being a useless role player.

      Both Moseby and Sierra are useful comps though as examples of players who did incredibly well when they were younger, but couldn’t put together a long career. That’s another (not terrible at all) option for Upton

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  6. Mike Green says:

    Sierra’s 1989 and 1991 seasons were that of an All-Star, but I’ll agree that the others weren’t.

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  7. Ken says:

    Billy Butler?

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  8. Matt Harms says:

    Interesting article, although I think this will rapidly lose value from 2010 and beyond. The more that stathounds start populating the ranks of baseball front offices, the less reliance there will be (I would assume) on traditional movement of players through the various levels of the minor leagues.

    This is especially true as teams start realizing that paying $3M a year for a replacement-level veteran probably isn’t worth it when you could promote cheap, young replacement-level rookies with high upside and get the same immediate production and value out of them.

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    • Matt says:

      Interesting idea, but couldn’t it also work the other way as well? If a team has a teenager who looks to have an outstanding future but is currently slightly below league average, you could choose to keep him in the minors and go with a short-term option in his place. While it costs a little more in the short-term, you are able to get similar production while delaying the start of the Major League service time for the prospect. Therefore, you extend the rookie contract another year, delay arbitration and get an extra year of the player’s peak for much less than he would get in free agency.

      However, this seems to be a bigger deal with really high-upside prospects who project to be superstars. If the prospect is decent or mediocre, it seems to make more sense to have the prospect in the majors to get the immediate cost savings.

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    • Bob says:

      That’s a good point. But teams shouldn’t prematurely promote their 20 year old prospects when they’ll hit free agency right in their prime. Case in point-Upton. Upton looked lost at the plate most of the past season where one-third of his ABs ended in Ks (which actually fit in well with the rest of the lineup). I won’t even mention defense. He reasonably should be getting his first look in the big leagues this year. But the Diamondbacks promoted him early because he was losing interest in the minors. And the DBacks didn’t want to repeat the Rays’ disaster with Young, Dukes, etc. Now, if Upton does become a superstar, he’ll likely be doing it in a different uniform.

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      • Teej says:

        He also walked in 13% of his at-bats and hit the ball pretty hard when he did make contact, putting up a line of .250/.353/.463.

        The average NL right fielder hit .271/.344/.444 last year. Upton’s wOBA was .347.

        I haven’t watched him play defense much, but UZR didn’t hate him and PMR had him among the top 10 right fielders in baseball.

        Upton is going to strike out a lot, but he’s not lost at the plate. He was an above-average right fielder when he was on the field last year. At the age of 20.

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      • Matt Harms says:

        Oh, absolutely. I don’t mean it to sound like I envision major league rosters stocked to the brim with 19 yr olds. But rather, it won’t be nearly as rare in the future as it is now. And once you start adding marginally higher numbers of young players, you’ll see a portion of them flame out just as you’d expect nowadays. The only difference being that their flameout will happen on the national stage.

        And frankly, if I’m a GM, I’d rather spend $400k to figure out that my 19 yr old stud can’t handle the majors vs spending $3M on a veteran placeholder and never find out the performance of my rookie. It may never actually happen, but I think the propensity is certainly a lot higher these days.

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      • Bob says:

        Teej, that’s a great point. And I’m going to eliminate the month of April from his 2008 stats when he was absolutely on fire and everyone thought he was the second coming of Ken Griffey. The stat line is now .220/.345/.427. With 95 Ks in 255 ABs. As you would say, that’s a below average right fielder at age 20 who regressed as the season went on. Not exactly what you want to see in his second year of MLB service. But the big point is the DBacks have “paid” two years in service time for average/below average performance from a player who probably will be commanding a huge salary when he does put it together.

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      • Bob says:

        And I’ll go on further to say that Dave’s post is, in fact, another surreptitious dig at the Diamondbacks’ brain trust. Not only did they ruin this offseason, they are promoting their future superstars too early, trading valuable prime year performance for below average, on the job training that could be done in the minors. At least, unlike Garland’s acquisition, the Diamondbacks won’t have to worry about overpaying for Upton when he hits free agency.

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      • Josh B. says:


        You might want to check out his sept. stats before you claim that he “regressed” as the season went on, when clearly he had a great start and finish.

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      • Teej says:

        It’s not fair to arbitrarily pick a month and ignore it. You have to take the good with the bad.

        For instance, what if I decide to throw out June? Then we have Upton hitting .278/.364/.519 for a wOBA of .372. That’s not fair either.

        As to the claim that he regressed as the season went along, he definitely cooled off in May and June, but he barely played at all in July and August, and when he came back, he hit .278/.352/.570 the rest of the way.

        Now, obviously there are sample-size problems with any sort of analysis that only involves a few months (and Upton had some insane home/road splits at well), but any hitter with Upton’s profile (power, patience and low contact%) is probably going to have some pretty wild swings from month to month because they put so few balls into play. Look at Upton’s BABIP numbers last year:

        April: .384
        May: .356
        June: .179
        Sept.: .340

        I left out July (.333)and August (1.000!) because he played so little.

        Considering we have two great months as bookends with some mediocrity in the middle, I don’t see any evidence that Upton got worse as the year went on or that he or the team would have been better served if he were in AAA. He had his ups and downs just like every other baseball player.

        Some improvement in his ability to put the bat on the ball would surely be welcome, but not if it comes at the cost of his power and on-base ability. Not everyone can be Pujols. As it stands right now, Upton is playing at a major-league-quality level. And another year of punishing AAA soft-tossers wasn’t going to make him any better. Learning is done at every level, including the bigs. But it’s not like Upton’s out there taking his lumps and hurting the team. He was an above-average right fielder in 2008, strikeouts be damned.

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    • Jim says:

      The whole point of the major leagues is to allow a player to develop, and come up gradually. The frequency of 19 year olds who could perform up to the level of a major league veteran, even a bad one, is pretty much limited to that list. Most would be so incredibly overwhelmed that they would never really adjust.

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  9. Steve Shane says:

    Can someone (Dave Cameron-Im assuming you know a lot more than most) settle a debate I was having with someone…
    What kind of SB #s do you project upton to have this season and in future seasons?

    I say, due to his mediocre SBs and SB% in the minors, coupled with his 1-5 showing in the big leagues last year, hes not breaking double digit steals anytime soon.

    Your thoughts?

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  10. shoewizard says:


    You wrote:

    “But the big point is the DBacks have “paid” two years in service time ”

    Sorry to rain on your “big point”, but you are wrong. They have not “paid” or used two years of service time, they’ve only used just barely over 1 year of service time, and still have 5 more years of control. (Perhaps you are confusing rookie status with service time…..a common mistake)

    Upton will not be a free agent until after the 2013 season. I realize railing on the D Backs is the flavor of the month around here, but I think the commentary here would have more cred if people took the time to get the facts straight.

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  11. alex says:

    justin upton his good tool player,thats it,now is what you do with the tools and so far he do not look smart player or know to used to win,is like a boxer with good pop but never connect and never win,i dont is that good

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  12. Thedir K. Atron says:

    What about Ivan Rodriguez?

    Surefire first ballot HOF’er who debuted and had 288 at bats as a 19 year old.

    Not sure if you weren’t counting catchers or if you just “forgot” him as a Mariners fan ;)

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  13. Terry says:

    So does this mean Jay Bruce isn’t a bust :-)

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  14. Mike says:

    Justin Upton is the next Andruw Jones without the defense. He will be a good player, but not the Griffey Jr. or A-Rod.

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