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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Fantastic Questions: "How good are the Upton brothers?"

We've survived the Ides of March and, although your draft and auction season is probably just beginning, mine is already wrapping up.  Most blogger and fantasy analyst leagues and mocks happen well in advance of the season, so that there is a chance for commentary.  As such, I've already done 8 drafts/auction in a variety of different formats and I'm beginning to feel like I've got a pretty good sense of the trends this March and some of the questions you need to ask yourself during your draft prep, like...

Are the Uptons worth it?

Upton the Younger knows very well how Jason Heyward is feeling right now.  The D-Backs rushed him to the majors in the waning months of the 2007 season, when he was just 19-years-old, billed as the best prospect since Alex Rodriguez.  Still only 22, Justin Upton appears on the verge of living up to all the hype.  He'll be drafted by the middle of the second round, if not earlier, and if you want him in an auction league, you had better be prepared to pay $30 at least.  

He'll be the only hitter in that price class who has never driven in a hundred runs, never scored a hundred runs, never hit thirty homers, or stolen thirty bases.  Those who pick him do so with they expectation that this will be the first year of many where he reaches at least two or three of those milestones. 

If you are in a keeper league, Upton, like Heyward, is a bargain at almost any price.  However, in yearly leagues, $30 is a lot to pay for a guy whose '09 numbers are not that much better than guys who'll be available for half that price: Carlos Lee, Brad Hawpe, etc.

Don't get me wrong, I'm an Upton believer.  I'm a Heyward believer as well, but players who aren't named Pujols simply don't post MVP-caliber numbers in their early twenties.  Check out these lines from a few Hall of Fame outfielders at age 22:

Hank Aaron .328 AVG, 106 R, 26 HR, 92 RBI, 2 SB
Barry Bonds .261 AVG, 99 R, 25 HR, 59 RBI, 32 SB
Ken Griffey Jr. .308 AVG, 83 R, 27 HR, 103 RBI, 10 SB
Frank Robinson .269 AVG, 90 R, 31 HR, 83 RBI, 10 SB

Hopefully that gives you a sense of how extraordinary it would be for Justin Upton to go .300-100-30-100-30 this season, something I think many of his owners are unfairly expecting he will do.  I think .280-90-25-90-20 is far more likely, and that would still be an outstanding line at his age, but not worth more than $20-$25 or a third or fourth round selection.

It's hard to see Justin rivalng the production of Matt Kemp, Ryan Braun, or Matt Holliday...this year.

While Justin is likely to be consistently, if not fairly, priced in the $30-$35 range, his brother, B. J. Upton, is going all over the map.  I've seen winning bids from $12-$28 in auctions and in mock drafts I've seen him picked as high as round five and as low as round twelve.
People have varying values for Upton because, frankly, they don't know what to expect.  In his three years as a full-time player, he's hit as many as 24 HR and as few as 9 HR, he's hit as high as .300 and as low as .241.  He's posted an OPS as high 894 and one as low as 686.

Last year's travails both on and off the field have a lot of owners running scared, but this overall fantasy line (.241-79-11-55-42) isn't that bad.  If Upton can steal 42 bases when his OBP was only .313, imagine what he could do if his OBP climbed back into the .380 range, as it was in '07 and '08.

It's apparent to me that Upton was never quite comfortable at the plate in '09, probably because either he or his organization forced the issue with his surgically-repaired shoulder.  He's had a strong spring, slugging .543, and I expect him to have a resurgent season.  

There had been no previous indication, prior to last season, that Upton would ever struggle with batting average.  His .300 campaign in '07 is probably on the high side, but Upton was a .297 hitter in the minors, with strong peripherals, and should resume being .285 or above in 2010.  The main question will be whether he can regain his plate discipline.  He walked once every 6.6 plate appearances in '08, but fell all the way to once every 11.0 plate appearances in '09, while simultaneously suffering a spike in his strikeout rate.  If he settles somewhere between his '08 and '09 BB/K rate, it would still lead to a sizable improvement in his numbers across the board.

I'm willing to believe that Upton's season-long slump was primarily injury-related, but I will not draft him depending on a major power surge.  For now, the 24 HR he hit in '07 look like the outlier.  I'm conservatively projecting this range: 

UPSIDE: .300 AVG, 110 R, 20 HR, 85 RBI, 60 SB, 900 OPS
DOWNSIDE: .275 AVG, 85 R, 12 HR, 65 RBI, 40 SB, 800 OPS

Assuming he actually produces something more or less between, his auction price should be between $18 and $22.  If you are bidding into the mid-twenties or higher, slow down and take a long look at Ichiro Suzuki, Curtis Granderson, Jacoby Ellsbury, or Jayson Werth, depending on your needs.  However, if you are nabbing him for the same price as pure speedsters like Denard Span, Michael Bourn, and Nyjer Morgan, who also come with sizable risks, that's a solid bargain.    

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