Stock Watch: He may not be gritty, but Justin Upton's happy, healthy
Upton is joined by pitchers Matt Harvey, Justin Masterson and Clay Buchholz in the Bull Market, while brother B.J. avoids making the Bear Market.
The Upton Brothers had an outside chance to become a rare brother duo to make Stock Watch. Justin Upton has led the brilliant Braves charge to 11-1, ensuring himself a spot in the Bull Market. Older brother B.J. has struggled offensively from the start, nearly qualifying him as a candidate for the Bear Market until a three-hit game in the Braves’ 9-0 victory over the rival Nats on Sunday eliminated him from contention.
Based on how the first two weeks have gone in Atlanta, in reality, no one deserves to be in the Bear Market. That includes B.J., whose defense they love. One question in preferring him over Michael Bourn this winter was the range factor that suggested Bourn saved as many as a baseball-best 80 runs over four years while Upton’s influence was pretty much negligible.
However, Braves people believe defensive metrics can be misleading, with center fielders either helped or hurt by the range of their corner men. In the case of B.J., Braves people believe he was hurt by non-Gold Glove types like Luke Scott being on the corners, not to mention The Trop being a tough spot. Anyway, they believe B.J. Upton is a terrific center fielder, maybe even comparable to Bourn.
Meanwhile, the Braves have several solid candidates for the Bull Market, foremost among them the younger Upton, who has a National League-leading 1.306 OPS and is showing early signs of fulfilling the superstar promise when the Diamondbacks made him the No. 1 overall pick in the fantastic MLB draft of 2005, ahead of Ryan Braun, Troy Tulowitzki and many other stars.
1. Justin Upton, Braves, OF
Upton’s off to such a hot start, the absence of iconic Chipper Jones in his old No. 3 home has hardly even been mentioned. The Diamondbacks make a lot of good decisions, but their persistent efforts to trade Upton this winter are tough to completely understand.
He might not exactly fit their "gritty" ballplayer mold (the complaint seemed to be he didn’t seem upset enough after striking out), but it would seem like his potential might outweigh a perceived lack of grittiness. He's still only 25. And while he hadn't quite reached the superstar status that some figured might come early, the early-season signs are that he might soon.
Maybe Upton wouldn’t have done this in Arizona. Maybe it helps to be with his brother, to be nearer his hometown of Norfolk, Va., or just to be out of Arizona, where the expectations might have been outsized. In any case, the Braves, who also make a lot of very good moves, might have significantly underpaid for a No. 3 hitter who leads the majors with seven home runs. Martin Prado is a nice versatile player and Randall Delgado is a decent right-handed pitching prospect. But this could turn out to be the steal of the winter.
Atlanta recognized the younger Upton for what he was, not someone destined to be an underachiever but someone whose impact talent would eventually surface. The Braves also knew that even in his worst season in 2012, he was a far better offensive player than Prado. And he wasn't right last year. People close to him say Upton's thumb bothered him from week one until mid-August, thus limiting his power. Now he is healthy. Happy probably doesn't hurt, either.
2. Matt Harvey, Mets, SP
No less than Rays star David Price tweeted that Harvey was his new favorite pitcher (at least among non-teammates), and a big part of the reason is a dynamic slider that might be the best in baseball. Harvey provided a taste of what was to come last season in an 11-strikeout debut in Arizona, and he has started the season like Tom Seaver II.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, he is the first pitcher in modern history (since 1900) to win each of his first three starts of a season with at least 25 strikouts and no more than six hits allowed over the three games. According to our own Danny Knobler, the last pitcher who had three starts within the first 11 games of the season of at least seven innings with no more than three hits allowed was Bob Feller, who wasn't too bad, either. No wonder Price is so high on the last No. 1 draft pick of the Omar Minaya regime.
3. Clay Buchholz, Red Sox, SP; Justin Masterson, Indians, SP
Hard to separate two guys with 3-0 record and exactly a 0.41 ERA. Masterson, the ex-Red Sox, has been overpowering, thanks to a perfected slider. Elias says Masterson becomes the first Indians starter to begin with three straight wins while allowing no more than one run since Luis Tiant in 1966.
Buchholz has been amazingly stingy, thanks to his ability to pitch. He took a no-hitter into the eighth inning against the Rays on Sunday before Kelly Johnson broke it up. Buchholz’s string of exceptional starts has been unbroken, however, Both he and Jon Lester have been brilliant starting in spring as the new leaders of a pitching staff that no longer contains overbearing ex-ace Josh Beckett. They are setting their own course, and it’s a positive one.
1. Aaron Hicks, Twins, OF
We don't like to include rookies in the Bear Market. But in this case, it seems unavoidable. Hicks was incredible in spring, earning the promotion from Double-A to the majors. But he might not have been prepared for the cold weather that was about to greet him.
The Long Beach, Calif., native might never have seen such frigidity as a Twin Cities April. The 23-year-old player who had a three-homer game in spring training only has two hits so far this year in 43 at-bats to go with an unsightly worst-in-baseball .155 OPS. Not only that, but he has struck out at least once in all 10 games. Now, that's cold! The Twins might want to see how he does when it’s warmer, assuming they can wait. Minnesota’s game on Sunday against the Mets was snowed out.
2. Pedro Alvarez, Pirates, 3B
Alvarez is hitting a bit better than Hicks, but not much. The former No. 1 pick has been a bit of an all-or-nothing proposition as a big leaguer. But so far this year, it has been more nothing than all. The Pirates have struggled as a team, but no one has struggled more than Alvarez, who is batting .079 with a .265 OPS and 15 strikeouts. He hasn't done the "all'' part of the equation as he has yet to post an extra-base hit.
3. Edinson Volquez, Padres, SP
Volquez, the Padres' opening day starter, continues to struggle. He became the first pitcher to go to 0-3 when he fell to the Rockies 9-5 on Saturday. He also has a league-worst 11.68 ERA, a mark unbefitting a pitcher who was once compared to Pedro Martinez and once traded for Josh Hamilton -- though Hamilton almost made the Bear Market, too, and would have if not for a nice weekend that helped shake the Angels out of their doldrums.
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