On Friday night, the last piece of the Rays’ offensive puzzle will be put into place. B.J. Upton has returned from his DL stint after injuring his back from a collision with Desmond Jennings in spring training and will make his 2012 debut. Upton is entering his age-28 season, and is in the prime of his career. Although many thought his career would be more successful, as he had 24 home runs and 22 steals while batting .300 as a 23 year old, he has settled into his peak as a very useful player to the Rays.
Overall, his career has been enigmatic, with a 63 point batting average range, 15 home run range, and 22 steal range over his five full seasons in the bigs. His last two years have been remarkably consistent, and Rays fans should expect similar production this season, with room for slight growth. From 2010 to 2011, the center fielder’s numbers were almost identical. Last year he hit 5 more home runs than 2010, with 6 less steals. However, it was the end of his 2011 campaign that leaves many to expect a better season in 2012.
September of last season was one of B.J.’s best months of his career. He hit .333 with an OPS of 1.038 and an ISO of .273. His walk rate also spiked to 14.3%, 5 percentage points better than the 3 months prior. Although his BABIP was .424 in September, his increased plate discipline is a positive sign that will hopefully translate to 2012. Another difference between 2010 and 2011 for Upton was that he was much more effective in hitting fastballs. According to Fangraphs, fastballs were Upton’s favorite pitch to hit last year; a pitch that he has struggled to hit since his breakout 2007 season. It will be interesting to see whether pitchers will throw him less heat this year, or whether he can capitalize on fastballs again.
Joe Maddon has said that Upton will bat “more towards the middle of the order” in 2012, giving him more RBI potential, while also allowing him to use his legs to create scoring opportunities for the bottom of the order. I expect that he will bat 6th in the order, so that Maddon can go righty, lefty, righty starting with Evan Longoria at cleanup. With this spot in the order, I see Upton optimistically reaching 80 runs, and 85 RBI. As he is in his prime power years, I project him at 23 home runs the rest of the way, with 35 steals. A .255 batting average would show a steady improvement over his .240 two year average. Don’t forget that 2012 is Upton’s walk year, so he has additional incentive to perform at his best.
Back injuries can be tricky for batters, so don’t be alarmed if he needs to rest on occasion, or if he gets off to a slow start. However, if September was truly a breakthrough month for him as far as his approach at the plate goes, Upton should finish the year as a strong contributor to the Tampa offense, and provide his usual stellar defense in center field.