Editor's Note: Bryan is off in Arizona this week catching some Spring Training games, so he recruited someone to take his spot in the weekly rotation. Matt Jacovina, from Warm October Nights, is in to write a fun minor league piece that we're sure answers all your dreams.
Most every profession, hobby or scene has a time of year when all devoted effort comes to fruition during a glorious, celebratory finale. For politicians, it occurs in early November on Election Day. Model railroad lovers get their week in the spotlight at the NMRC. Teenage girls aspiring to show as much of their midriff as possible, meanwhile, gather and indulge in their style of dress whenever Lindsay Lohan plays a show at a nearby venue.
Prospect mavens are no different and every off-season treat themselves to a nice helping of lists. Top 10 prospects for each team, top prospects at individual positions, and, of course, top 100 overall lists. It's a satisfying ending to a long season of pondering whether Hanley Ramirez is overrated or if Carlos Quentin being hit by a few dozen pitches a season puts him at a higher injury risk.
As a fan, all seems fine. Lists may not be the most sophisticated tool for prospect analysis, but you don't care since they're just so delightful. But each year a sudden surprise comes from the inclusion of a few new names. Alex Gordon is cool; you've seen his college stat line, and wow. You've probably even seen him on television. Jay Bruce? Okay. You can appreciate 5-tool high school talent in conjunction with a small sample size of professional at-bats being ranked towards the back of a top 100 list.
But wait. You've made it to the top of the list, with only the very elite left to be ordered, and there's a high school draftee with no professional at-bats ranking near the pinnacle of baseball players unable to rent cars: Justin Upton. You know his big brother well and have heard that the talent level is similar, but seeing your longest running source position him above AA-tested favorites like Jeremy Hermida and the golden-armed Francisco Liriano is simultaneously frustrating and tantalizing. You don't doubt his talent, but watching his brief scouting video over and over doesn't give much of a glimpse into his future. Like Jason Giambi, should the Yankees ever attempt to bunt him over to third base, you're in a pickle.
In order to resolve such problems with the uncertain, EA Sports has produced a tool capable of creating an alternate reality where Justin Upton, instead of taking the big bucks and a chance to play professional baseball, attends college, where we'd all be given the opportunity to see what he could do with an aluminum bat. Surely after three years of development in the public eye we'd have a better handle on why he's considered one of the greatest young talents in baseball.
There are tons of caveats for regarding this as more than a for-fun, "what if?" scenario including: the subjectivity of creating Justin Upton. I tried to be as thoughtful as possible in assigning his abilities, utilizing heavily both B.J. Upton's minor league statistics and his tendency settings from MVP Baseball 2005, scouting reports, comparisons to many other players in the game from Ryan Zimmerman to Chad Flack, and Google's image search for the finishing touches. The other obvious problem is that we're talking about a video game which is intended to excel in game play, not used as an accurate simulation engine. Also, the rosters for the 2006 season are oddly composed of 2005 players, and incoming freshman are computer generated, meaning the type of competition he'd have faced in real life is different from in the game. But, hey, it's something to pass the time until the season begins.
The following are the yearly chronicles of Upton's journey through college, playing baseball for the North Carolina State Wolfpack. I'm assuming his digital counterpart also learned a few things along the way, and possibly even created a trendy Facebook page, but no such reports were available. Maybe in next year's game.
After turning down a potentially record setting signing bonus with the Arizona Diamondbacks in order to pursue a college education -- or perhaps as a means of rebellion against simply following in the footsteps of brother Bossman -- all eyes were on Justin. Stephen Drew's big freshman year was the comparison point most journalists came up with; it sounds like a lot of pressure, but next to the claims of him being the next Ken Griffey Jr., it wasn't so bad. Upton's college career began February 11th, and his first at-bat was a nice summary of his skills: he hit a ball hard into the gap, yet was able to stretch it out into a triple thanks to his incredible speed. Overall, however, February and most of March was rather quiet for Justin and the Wolfpack: Upton's average stayed comfortably above .300, but with the team losing, it was hard to not be slightly unenthused about his debut. Realists kept things in perspective, though, reminding that he was a freshman hitting like a legitimate college cleanup hitter.
Starting late March, Upton stepped up his game and looked more comfortable at the plate. His strikeouts dipped while his walks increased and his power was becoming more apparent. In early May, during a weekend series against UNC, he held his own against Andrew Miller and Daniel Bard, drawing two walks with a knock against Miller, and getting a base hit and eventually scoring the game's only run against Bard. After struggling when facing Cesar Carillo in April, it was comforting to see him hold his own against top-notch hurlers. At the end of the regular season, he was named the 2nd best shortstop in the ACC behind Tyler Greene.
Going into the ACC tournament, the Wolfpack had something to prove, after struggling through the first two months of the year. Thanks to the offensive explosions of Upton and first baseman Aaron Bates, they accomplished their goal and took home the tournament championship. In the deciding game, Upton went 4-for-5 with a home run, 4 runs and 7 RBI's. Yeah, yeah, aluminum bats, but that sort of performance is impressive even in a wiffle ball game. Unfortunately, the NCAA regionals didn't go as well, and in the third game, NC State was eliminated by the University of Central Florida, despite Upton taking Mike Billek deep for a three run shot.
Justin's final line for the season was .372/.445/.616, with 47 strikeouts against 32 walks, 11 home runs, 16 doubles, 6 triples, and a disappointing 11 stolen bases to 5 caught stealings. For the more traditional, he had 48 RBI's and 52 runs. Pessimists pointed out that he fell short of Stephen Drew's freshman campaign where he hit .402/.457/.750, but everyone else was very impressed by his maturity at the plate. More importantly, he appeared to be getting better as the season went on, a sign that he was quickly adjusting to pitching considerably more advanced than he faced in high school. A sophomore slump looked about as likely as Justin deciding to forsake baseball altogether.
Justin Upton was always a strong kid -- even bigger than B.J. at the same age -- but he didn't let contentment get the best of him, adding even more muscle to start the 2007 college season. February was an unusual month for NC State, as the offense was rather quiet while the pitching carried the team. The consistently low scoring games didn't correlate with Upton's performance, however: he only hit two round trippers, but opposing pitchers couldn't get him out, and his batting average hovered around .500 for the month, in which he walked more than he struck out. March brought more of the same, although he did endure a brief slump. Yes, apparently he is mortal.
April proved to be Justin's best month since joining the diverse ranks of hopeful writers, scientists and binge drinkers in college. This particular burst of brilliance made it clear why he had been considered the best amateur in the game before the 2005 draft. Towards the end of the month, it was near impossible to get him out; his improving plate discipline made it difficult to strike him out, and anything over the plate was fair game to be crushed. To top it off, in the beginning of May against the eventual player of the year, Max Scherzer, Upton was able to accomplish the rare feat of taking him yard, although the Wolfpack still lost the game to #1 ranked Missouri 3-2.
NC State was eliminated quickly from the ACC tournament, but lead by Upton's seemingly unstoppable bat, they pummeled the competition in the regionals and super regionals. The College World Series, Justin's biggest stage yet, began with the best game of his career: 6-for-6 with 2 home runs in a 13-7 victory against Rutgers. He put in another fine performance in a blowout against Notre Dame, going 3-for-5 during an 11-0 victory. Unfortunately, the Wolfpack could only split the next two games against the Irish, and were then beat twice by Georgia Tech, ending their underdog run at the title.
Glory in Omaha was narrowly missed, but that didn't deter from Upton's dazzling season. His batting line almost requires a second glance to make sure it doesn't accidentally contain his OPS instead of another statistic: .430/.514/.733, in 73 games, with 17 of his extra base hits being home runs. He was named first team All-American at shortstop, and was a runner-up to Scherzer for player of the year. Such a high batting average may seem like an aberration in many cases, but it shouldn't be too surprising after arming Justin with an aluminum bat, considering his astounding bat speed and pitch recognition. Not even the harshest of critics had anything negative to say about Upton's year; his talent was major league ready as just a second-year college student.
With excitement very high for a repeat of 2007, February brought a bit of disappointment to baseball fans when Justin bruised his ribs in the first game of the season and sat out for a week to be sure he was fully healed. The Wolfpack struggled even after his return, thanks to much of the team's talent leaving via the 2007 draft. Upton was slow in heating up after returning, and didn't look like himself at the plate until late March, when both he and NC State began to pick up steam. By the end of April, Justin was hitting everything thrown to him and looked just as impressive as ever.
May was another impossibly good month for the young slugger, and he raised his average back to the suddenly standard .430 range. Pitchers could only take solace in knowing he'd soon be drafted and finally have to face competition that actually had the ability to get him out. The ACC tournament was a bust for the Wolfpack, who were eliminated after two games. In the first game of the regionals, Justin Upton helped his team to an 8-4 victory over Southern University with his two bombs. In an anticlimactic end to his college career, the Wolfpack dropped the next two games, and didn't qualify for the super regionals. That didn't take away from Upton's tremendous season, of course. His final line was .436/.508/.718 in 60 games, with 15 home runs, 3 triples and 15 doubles. Considering his slow start, his finale was even more striking.
Though he entered college as a polished hitter, Upton's contact rate (as well as power) increased with experience. Combining his upside with performance, he'd almost certainly have been the #1 overall pick if the game allowed players to be drafted during their junior year. Unless maybe a cheap team had the first pick and digital Scott Boras was his agent. In the end, Justin Upton did enough to be remembered as having among the strongest three year careers for a shortstop in college history.
After seeing a few Justin Upton at-bats this spring, I don't think this simulation is too optimistic despite being very impressive. His incredible tools have already begun producing baseball skills, and they certainly justify the high ranks he's been receiving on prospect lists. A college career similar to this one is far from outside his abilities. Incredible bat and leg speed and a comfortable approach at the plate highlight his status as an elite prospect. Defense is much more difficult to judge, although his great speed and strong arm will ensure that the Diamondbacks find somewhere for him to play. One oddity about his video game counterpart was low stealing percentages, which I don't think will have any correlation with real life performances: his speed should produce a lot of stolen bases against minor league catchers.
So, were some Justin Upton rankings aggressive? Absolutely. But he's the type of youngster who deserves the hype, for better or worse. One of the most riveting stories in minor league baseball for the year will be his transition to professional pitching. It's a safe bet that he'll excel at times, but the extent of his success is the type of unknown that makes the prospect scene so exciting in the first place.
Matt has been writing about the minor leagues at his blog, Warm October Nights, since last July. He can be reached by clicking here.