Justin Upton didn't take long to get comfortable in Atlanta's lineup. (Getty Images)
Sometime during his first six seasons, Justin Upton earned a reputation as a loafer. The Atlanta Braves understood this when they traded for him this offseason. They understood, too, a very important distinction: such reputations often get assigned erroneously and stick unfairly.
Justin Upton is not a loafer, was not a loafer and, absent some sort of change in his makeup, never will be a loafer. The Braves believed this, which is why they were downright giddy when it became apparent the Arizona Diamondbacks would deal Upton because of concerns about his effort. And though Braves officials felt their intuition on Upton correct from the moment he arrived at camp this spring, they look back now on March 16 as a seminal moment.
It was more than halfway through spring training. Restlessness pervaded Braves camp. Why is the axiom that spring stats mean nothing true? Because by the middle, everyone just wants to go golfing or go home. Upton happened to be playing that day against the New York Yankees. He stroked a single that scored Jason Heyward. On the throw home, he took second base. The ball skipped away.
The Braves were winning. Paul Maholm was dealing. Upton could've stayed at second. He didn't. He busted it toward third, slid in hard and tweaked his ankle. It was minor. Kept him out only a day. But it was indicative to the Braves, from management down to the players, that if their 25-year-old superstar-in-training was going full throttle in a spring-training-dog-days game just to do things the way they teach you to do them, he was as much of a loafer as a pair of sneakers.
"That," a Braves official said, "is a microcosm of how he has been on the field, off the field and in the clubhouse."
Now, it is the first week of the season. It is fairly safe to guess that by the final week the Colorado Rockies will not have the best record nor run differential. It is safe, too, to posit that the Los Angeles Dodgers will not sport a 1.00 team ERA. The first week, like spring training, indicates next to nothing.
And yet when the Braves get excited because …
1. Justin Upton ended the week with a major league-leading five home runs, it is difficult to drop the small-sample-size bomb. Because this is what Upton is supposed to be: a 6-foot-2, 220-pound power-hitting monster.
Lest we forget: We have seen this Upton before. We saw it when, as a 21-year-old, he popped four in five days. And later that year when he homered three games in a row. We saw five in one blazing July 2011 week, and four in five days that September. Few players are capable of going on power tears like Upton, and when he's hitting them to the middle of the field – see this shot off Roy Halladay, this one off Carlos Villanueva or his walk-off on Saturday – Upton is a dream acquisition: powerful, on a healthy contract and a solid presence. Pretty much sounds like …
2. Michael Morse in his second go-around in Seattle. In fact, his numbers are practically identical to Upton's: .310/.355/.828 to Upton's .318/.360/1.045. Both have five home runs. Morse's eight RBIs beat Upton by one. Morse has struck out 10 times in 29 at-bats, Upton 11 in 22.
Morse, of course, is the far less pedigreed of the two. He was a 6-foot-5 shortstop when he arrived in Seattle as a 23-year-old and didn't hit much. A steroid suspension left his career in limbo. He grew out of shortstop, reinvented himself as a 250-pound outfielder/first baseman, slugged .514 over 1,246 at-bats in four years with Washington and was sent back West after the Nationals traded for Denard Span and re-signed Adam LaRoche, leaving Morse jobless.
He will get 600 plate appearances for the run-starved Mariners, who have four non-Morse homers in 209 non-Morse at-bats. For sheer size and raw power, Morse has few peers. There is Giancarlo Stanton of Florida and Jason Heyward of Atlanta and …
3. Josh Hamilton of Los Angeles. Oof. That still sounds weird. It looks rather awkward, too, especially to those in Arlington who want to remind Hamilton that the Metroplex is indeed a baseball town.
(Which it is not. Seriously, anyone who wants to argue against this – football is sporting priority Nos. 1, 2, 3 and all the way to about 4,999, rodeo is No. 5,000 and baseball No. 5,001 – is either lying to him or herself, or the kid who cried when he heard Michael Young was getting traded.)
Still, to see the cauldron of Schadenfreude bubble and overflow at Rangers Ballpark was one of those moments for which we ought to thank the schedule makers. First Hamilton is awful, and then the Rangers intentionally walk Albert Pujols three times (!) to face him. The bases-loaded double play in the first inning Sunday almost solidified Hamilton as having the worst opening week of anyone, though hits his next three times up redeemed him – and lifted his batting average to .160.This being 10 Degrees and all, here are the rest of the 10 worst opening weeks.
• Matt Kemp – Just two hits in 20 at-bats. On the bright side, both were doubles.
• Luis Cruz – Along with Russell Martin, the only regulars still 0 for the season. Cruz is 0 for 17, Martin 0 for 14.
• Aaron Hicks – First week of the Double-A-to-the-big-leagues experiment did not go well: 2 for 26 with 11 strikeouts.
• Brett Wallace – 1 for 17 with 13 strikeouts, or: The Archetypal Astro.
• Robinson Cano – Zero extra-base hits among a 3-for-23 start. Cano – Zero extra-base hits among a 3-for-23 start. New walk-up song should be "Ether" by Nas.
• R.A. Dickey – Note to ballplayers: Do not anger Torontonians. It took all of two starts for them to start booing Dickey. The 12 runs he yielded did him no favors.
• Paul Konerko – After a big second-half slowdown last year – his OPS was 161 points lower after the All-Star break – does a 2-for-20 start portend worse?
• Cole Hamels/David Price/Matt Harrison – Yikes, left-handed opening day starters. Hamels (10.97 ERA, 16 hits in 10 2/3 innings, 7-to-5 K-to-BB), Price (8.18 ERA, including an eight-run stinkbomb Sunday) and Harrison (8.44 ERA) account for three of the six worst ERAs among pitchers with multiple starts.
• Mitch Moreland – In his age-27 season. Primed for a big year. Starts 1 for 17. And to think the Rangers could have …
4. Chris Davis playing first base. There is precedent for this. An absolutely frightening comparison, actually. Think about this: Chris Davis is Richie Sexson.
Davis: a 6-foot-4, 230-pound first baseman/outfielder.
Sexson: a 6-foot-6, 200-pound first baseman/outfielder.
Davis: Showed superb power early in his career (38 home runs in 736 plate appearances) but struck out too much (238 in 686 at-bats) for his team's liking.
Sexson: Showed super power early in his career (42 home runs in 708 plate appearances) but struck out too much (159 in 653 at-bats) for his team's liking.
Davis: Traded at 25 years old.
Sexson: Traded at 25 years old.
Davis: Broke out in his first full season with his new team: .270/.326/.501 with 33 home runs and 169 strikeouts.
Sexson: Broke out in his first full season with his new team: .271/.342/.547 with 45 home runs and 178 strikeouts.
Sexson went on to hit 156 home runs the next five years before his body broke down. Even after an 0 for 4 Sunday, Davis finished opening week hitting .455/.500/1.136 with four home runs and an absurd 17 RBIs. Practically everyone in baseball was gawking at Davis' performance, while across the clubhouse …
5. Adam Jones scoffed at it. How about a /.538/.556/.692 triple-slash. And just one strikeout in 26 at-bats for a guy who has struck out well over 100 times in each of his full big-league seasons.
Jones is 27, and while he is a notoriously hot starter, scouts this spring saw a different element to his game – an awareness of his abilities and a harness on them. His wild swings weren't as wild. His abundant athleticism was on display only when necessary. Jones always has been a good player. More and more, he looks like a smart one. His talent is dangerous enough. If he can harness it, he will be the sort of player who, with Davis, Matt Wieters and Manny Machado, can prove last year was far from a fluke for the Baltimore Orioles.
Because Jones is allergic to walks, never will he be the complete hitter of, say, a Joey Votto or Miguel Cabrera. Because he plays center field, and is playing it better than he has, he can be a star. Not every player, remember, can be like …
6. Clayton Kershaw and understand his superpowers in his early 20s. Kershaw is straight out of a comic book. He knew what he had early, cultivated it and now, at 25, is in such control of his abilities it borders on unfair.
Kershaw is verging on his 1,000th major league inning. After 16 shutout innings to start the season, his career ERA is 2.75. Among the players with 1,000 innings, three have lower ERAs: Noodles Hahn, Fred Glade and Red Donohue. They threw a combined 4,016 innings from 1901-1908. The closest thing to Kershaw is Tom Seaver, whose 2.86 ERA over 4,783 innings is simply remarkable. Seaver's ERA as he cracked the 1,000-inning mark was 2.49.
And that was during the time of the 15-inch mound and depressed hitting. Seaver's ERA+ – weighted for ballpark and era, with 100 average – was 141. Kershaw's is 140. So it is fair to say: The start of Kershaw's career has been every bit as impressive as Tom Terrific's. And to think, it was only two years ago Kershaw was barely beating out …
7. Roy Halladay for the NL Cy Young. Now Halladay is at a career crossroads, coming off his worst season, facing a radar gun that says his stuff is no longer there and prompting one of the most prevalent questions of opening week: Does Doc have it anymore? It's one of the reasons his start Monday highlights this week's 10 pitching matchups work watching
• Tuesday: Brandon Morrow vs. Anibal Sanchez – Keep an eye on Morrow as an AL Cy Young dark horse. Fastball velocity up more than 1 mph.
• Tuesday: Jake Peavy vs. Gio Gonzalez – As great as Peavy looked in his first start, he didn't have a handgasm like Gio.
• Tuesday: Dillon Gee vs. Cliff Lee – The Battle for Inter-H-I-J-K Supremacy.
• Thursday: Josh Johnson vs. Doug Fister – Duel between the best No. 4 starters in the AL.
• Friday: Matt Cain vs. Jeff Samardzija – Cain comes off the worst start of his career (nine runs in three innings Sunday). Samardzija comes off the biggest blown opportunity (a career-high 13 strikeouts and a game lost to wildness).
• Friday: Yu Darvish vs. Hisashi Iwakuma – At least Japan will watch.
• Saturday: Justin Verlander vs. Brett Anderson – My AL Cy Young winner vs. my long shot.
• Saturday: Cole Hamels vs. Jose Fernandez – Too bad Fox's blackouts are going to ruin people's ability to see this.
• Saturday: David Price vs. Jon Lester – The struggling ace against what's looking like the vintage one.
Yes, that's 10 games and not a single one featuring the teams that ended opening week 5-1: Atlanta, Arizona and, most inexplicable, the …
8. Dexter Fowler-led Rockies. Like Jones, Fowler is at the magical age of 27, and little tweaks to his swing over the last two seasons have helped unleash the power that always was there in his 6-foot-4 frame. Last season was a breakout year, with a .300/.389/.474 line, and if Fowler can maintain the power and step up his center field defense, he'll be staring at two possibilities.
The less likely: a contract extension with Colorado. Barring a trade of Troy Tulowitzki or Carlos Gonzalez – and neither, at this juncture, is likely – the Rockies don't have room for the sort of money a power-hitting Fowler would warrant. Jones fetched $85.5 million for six years. Unless the Rockies contend – and with that pitching, it ain't happening – they may be forced to trade Fowler. They dangled him this offseason, asking for what other executives considered an excessive return.
Perhaps they were on to something. Sort of like this offseason when the Chicago Cubs tried to deal …
9. Carlos Marmol only to see things fall through. Marmol, remember, thought he was going to the Los Angeles Angels for Dan Haren. Even told reporters in the Dominican Republic as much. Well, the Cubs – wary of Haren, who gave up four homers in his 2013 debut – yanked the deal and thus were stuck with Marmol.
And while the Cubs have essentially told Marmol he's getting traded sometime this year, the question after opening week is: For what? A bag of balls? A stack of programs? A souvenir cup of skunky beer? All of those, at this point, would represent overpays. Marmol rarely throws strikes. When he does, they get hit. If here were not Carlos Marmol – capital-C Closer who once finished a season with a 2.55 ERA, 38 saves and 16 strikeouts per nine innings – he would be at Triple-A. That simple.
For now, he is likely resigned to mop-up duty after losing the closer's job to Kyuji Fujikawa. This is another of those cases where a reaction to opening week is more representative of the player than his performance. Sometimes a handful of games simply reinforces what we already know, like …
10. Justin Upton is a star. He was supposed to be one when he went No. 1 overall in 2005, and he flashed it in those seasons when he went on home run binges, and we're seeing it now. Even on days like Sunday, when he took the Golden Sombrero, it's easy to shrug. Look at what he did the previous five games.
It's not like this has been an instantaneous disaster for the D'backs. Like the Braves, they're 5-1. They love having Martin Prado around, and they think Randall Delgado and Nick Ahmed and Zeke Spruill are major leaguers, too.
That said, the vacuum of supposed leadership from the departures of Prado, Chipper Jones, David Ross and others has been filled by … Upton. And his brother B.J. And Heyward. And Freddie Freeman. There are veterans, of course, who impart wisdom, but the natural evolution of a young team is for those young players to represent what their franchise should be.
And on that March day, when Justin Upton hauled it toward third base, he was saying to anyone watching: Be like this.
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