Eight years apart, B.J. Upton and Bryce Harper were selected in the MLB Draft- Upton second overall by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 2002 and Harper first overall by the Washington Nationals in 2010. Both are players who started at other positions before ending up in the outfield. Both broke into the majors at age 19. Upton heads to free agency having still not harnessed all his potential- Harper as a rookie has shown observers as much as they could have asked for.
Both Upton and Harper were started at the Low-A level of the minor leagues before skipping over High-A to finish the year at Double-A. For Upton that was in 2003 while for Harper that was in 2011. Both hit .297 overall that season, and just .002 separates Upton’s .390 OBP from Harper’s .392.
The following year, Upton spent time at Double-A again (29 games) before going up to Triple-A while Harper went straight up to Triple-A. Upton played well in 69 Triple-A games, posting a .311/.411/.519 line with 17 doubles, 12 homers, 36 RBI, 17 of 22 stolen bases, 72 strikeouts, and 42 walks. Harper struggled at least by his standards in his first taste of Triple-A, posting a .250/.333/.375 line in 20 games with 4 doubles, 1 homer, 3 RBI, and 14 strikeouts compared to 9 walks. Both seemed like they needed more seasoning- Upton simply because he hadn’t played a full season at Triple-A, and Harper not only because of his inexperience, but also his struggles. Nevertheless, both were called up to the major leagues. Upton played 45 games while Harper, entering the Rays series, has played 44. Their numbers could not be more different.
Upton posted a .258/.324/.409 line with 8 doubles, 4 homers, 12 RBI, 4 of 5 stolen bases, and 46 strikeouts against 15 walks. Harper has posted a .294/.370/.524 line with 10 doubles, 4 triples, 7 homers, 19 RBI, 4 of 7 steals, and 36 strikeouts against 20 walks. Upton’s OPS+, his on-base plus slugging compared to the league average adjusted to ballpark, was 93, meaning that he was 7% below league average. Harper’s is 141, 41% above league average.
The Rays sent Upton back to Triple-A and he would spend all of 2005 there, posting a .303/.392/.490 line with 36 doubles, 6 triples, 18 homers, 74 RBI, 44 of 57 steals, and 127 strikeouts to 78 walks. After posting a .269/.374/.394 line at Triple-A in 2006, Upton resurfaced in the big leagues and it did not go well as he managed just a .246/.302/.391 line in 50 games. The next season in 2007, Upton spent his first full season in the big leagues and finally played up to the level the Rays expected, posting a .300/.386/.508 line with 25 doubles, 25 homers, 82 RBI, and 22 of 30 in stolen bases. His OPS+ was 136. But since then, Upton has managed just a .250/.336/.407 line, a 103 OPS+.
B.J. Upton was undoubtedly the best player on the board entering the 2002 MLB Draft, but he fell to the D-Rays at second overall because the Pirates made a money-saving pick, selecting right-hander Bryan Bullington. Everyone knew that Bryce Harper was going first overall to the Nationals in 2010. The Rays hoped that Upton could be the type of talent that could invigorate their ballclub into contention. In 2008, the Rays did make the playoffs, and after an inconsistent 2008 season, Upton was incredible in the postseason, posting a .288/.333/.652 line with 7 homers, 16 RBI, and 6 steals without getting caught in 16 games. Since then, Upton’s OPS+ has been 101, just 1% above league average. He has been just about a league average player, nothing more. Time has run out for Upton with the Rays. He still has not put everything together, and he is a free agent following the season. The Rays will have to move on.
With Harper in the middle of the lineup, the Nationals have surged to first place in the NL East. At 38-26 they’re 4 games ahead of the New York Mets. With Harper teaming with Stephen Strasburg and the rest of the Nationals’ young core, the sky is the limit for this Nationals team both this season and moving forward.