And you won't read anything here to suggest otherwise. In fact, I might exhaust my supply of negative adjectives here as a try to justify his future playing time. But even with how abysmal Upton has been, the dumbest thing the Braves could do is give up on him this season. Despite his spectacularly bad year at the plate, Upton remains the best option for the Braves to man center field throughout September and into the playoffs.
This isn't a conclusion arrived at easily. Jordan Schafer has had the far better offensive season, even considering his much smaller sample size. Schafer has not only outperformed Upton at the plate and provided a spark on the basepaths, but his narrative as a player looking for redemption has generated him a lot of fans.
Atlanta fans may remember his ugly debut, unceremonious departure in the Michael Bourn trade, and subsequent drug suspension. Schafer then earned the unflattering distinction of being cut by the Houston Astros. I mean, no ill will to the Astros and I think they're doing the right thing in their rebuilding project, but for Houston to cut Schafer had to be humiliating.
But, this year, Schafer has earned his second chance.
Given that Upton's failures have been magnified by his huge free-agent contract, the largest such contract in team history, Schafer has even more going for him. Schafer is not only earning more respect than he's ever garnered in his career, but he's also earning himself a pile of money heading into offseason arbitration. You'd have to think that if the Braves don't work something out with him, he will have a few teams bidding on his renewed upside.
You can count me among the Schafer fans, and I think he's going to be a solid bench piece in the playoffs and, hopefully, for the franchise over a few more years. But Schafer's performance this year is both an historic outlier and also based on a limited sample size.
The Braves have, unfortunately, needed to be creative with roster construction in the wake of a number of key injuries. Based on how the roster is currently constructed, it's going to be easier to maximize run prevention through solid defense. Upton is a major part of the rock-solid defense that the Braves need to send out every day to support a still solid starting rotation.
There just is no way that Upton is this bad offensively. It's possible that he just suddenly became a nightmare of a hitter, but it's more likely that he's got plenty of production still in him. To move on from Upton now would be to have bought him at his absolute highest value and sell him at his absolute lowest. And the only way to extract his potential value is to keep giving him playing time and hope he finds his groove. The Braves are trying to build a sustained winning tradition, which you can't do by going with the hot hand over the better expected results, no matter how bad reality has been compared to those expectations.
Any player can have one bad year, but it usually gets more closely analyzed in the wake of a new contract. I think Adam Dunn provides a great recent analogy. In 2011, Dunn played his first year of a large free-agent contract with the White Sox. His historically terrible season ended with 11 home runs and a .569 OPS. He has proceeded over the last two years to prove that he is still capable of a respectable .800 OPS, hitting 71 home runs and counting. Granted, Upton has managed to be somehow worse this year than Dunn was in 2011, but still.
Baseball has a funny quirk where the difference between 28 years old and 32 years old is enormous. While it might be hilarious to call a 32-year-old accountant old or passed his prime compared to a 28-year-old, that's the reality in baseball. Upton, who just turned 29, should still have several productive years ahead of him. With the money already spent and his performance at an unsustainable low point, the wise move is to keep giving the excessively talented player his reps.
It would be silly to ask for patience with Upton. The patience is already exhausted for a guy performing this badly. But there is always room for optimism for a guy this young and with this skill set. Upton has the tools and the youth to return to a highly productive and valuable player. That's only going to happen if he keeps playing.
Patrick Richardson has followed the Atlanta Braves for 22 years. He started playing t-ball right as Atlanta's record-setting run of division titles began. He imitated Terry Pendleton and John Smoltz on the kindergarten playground. His first baseball memory is the gut-wrenching Jack Morris World Series game. He is an amateur but enthusiastic sabermetrician.
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