Two Birds, One Post

Motivated is to Manny Ramirez what finally healthy is to B.J. Upton. The analogy connects common narrative to player, thus connecting the players themselves. What we should really connect are the storylines and the garbage bin.

Everyone and their mother seems excited about what a motivated Manny will do this season, as if Manny’s internal competitive candle is now lit by the fennel of Prometheus. Reaching the majors is only less difficult than staying and thriving in the majors. Manny has not just thrived, but he is a no doubt Hall of Famer and one of the best players of his generation. Over the last three seasons, he has the second highest OPS+ in baseball, kneeling only to Albert Pujols, yet some question his motivation. Reward those who follow up motivational mentions with an epic portrayal of Ramirez as the anti-Christ to the Rays’ wicked northeasterly foes with double points.

To have some tell it, Manny can be motivated by money or spurning and nothing else. The Red Sox messed with his money – spurning him in the process – while in the 1991 draft the Yankees’ passed on Ramirez – who grew up in New York and attended George Washington High School – in favor of Brien Taylor – thus spurning him while also messing with his immediate money. Everyone is sure of this: Ramirez will be ready to go whenever the Rays play the Red Sox or Yankees.

Although on the surface it sounds silly, the team may take a hyped Ramirez – to stray away from the casual tone – for the divisional games, even if it means nonplussed performances through the other 90 games. The Red Sox and Yankees are probably the best non-Rays teams in the AL, meaning these games will be difficult to win while directly influencing the Rays’ October plans. Trading more for less is only idea if there is a noticeable improvement in quality or a restricting circumstance, but there could be a case made where Ramirez’s performance in the 62 divisional games is more important than Ramirez’s performance in the additional 90.

Alas, few are presenting or theorizing that case as much as pushing it as a tentative reality. Nobody knows how Ramirez will perform in 2011 altogether or against any specific foe. His career numbers are virtually meaningless to the discussion too, as his last time spent as an AL East regular came in 2008. Back then, the Yankees’ rotation included Mike Mussina, Andy Pettitte, Darrell Rasner, Chien-Ming Wang, Sidney Ponson, Joba Chamberlain, and 33 combined starts from Ian Kennedy, Phil Hughes, Carl Pavano, Alfredo Aceves, Dan Giese, Brian Bruney, and Kei Igawa. Thirteen pitchers were named just then and only one (Hughes) is guaranteed to start a game for the Yankees this season. The Yankees’ starting lineup included Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon, Melky Cbera, Bobby Abreu, and Hideki Matsu, with Xavier Nady, Wilson Betemit, Chad Moeller, Morgan Ensberg, and Richie Sexson also making appearances.

When put into perspective, Ramirez’s 2008 numbers versus the Yankees mean almost nothing in the present day, so imagine what the 2004, 2001, or 1999 numbers mean. And the kicker is this: if Ramirez has a good season, odds are, he will play well versus the Yankees and Red Sox, regardless of whether he’s more motivated or not. Those teams are the ones the Rays will play the most, thus Ramirez is likely to have more at-bats against them that just about any non-Orioles or Blue Jays team. The larger the sample size, the more true talent level is exposed. Eighteen games is a small sample relative to a season or three, but it is a huge deal in the scope of versus team single season statistics.

Upton’s buzzword is actually plural. The 2007 season remains the worst thing to happen to his development because folks remember their firsts too vividly to reject it as an accurate barometer. Using a composite value metric with Upton leads to an interesting dilemma. FanGraphs’ WAR holds Upton’s 2007 season in high esteem, but below his 2008 season (by half a win) thanks to a boost in defensive performance. If you say UZR sucks, then Baseball-Reference’s WAR might be a more suitable brand. And, voila, Upton’s 2007 is indeed his best season, but with a catch – his 2010 season was worth 4.3 wins, which is five runs shy of 2007 and three runs better than his 2008.

Either 2007 is the best for Upton while 2008 and 2010 were really quite good too, or 2007 is really just the second best season of Upton’s career. Whichever WAR used, the narrative of a perennial underachiever in constant decline since a hot start becomes false. It goes beyond comparing Upton to himself too. Perhaps Upton is a disappointment for his draft slot, at second overall, but in order to make a strong statement one must consider context. Firstly, Upton’s draft class – was it a weak class or a strong one?

The only positional player with more career WAR than Upton taken in the top 10 of the 2002 draft is Prince Fielder. The mammoth vegetarian has two wins on Upton in 150 more games, yet Upton actually averages more WAR per at-bat by an ever so slight margin. You can extend the challenge to the top 15 and no one rivals Upton, take it the top 20 and Nick Swisher finally spars, but ultimately holds roughly three more wins in 200-plus more games. The rest of the first round is full of players like Khalil Greene, Denard Span, Jeff Francoeur, and Russ Adams. There is not a single position player in the first round of the draft with substantial playing time who can claim to be a better player than Upton is on a rate basis.

What about the number two slot though? Of the 46 players taken there, Upton currently ranks as the 15th best. Upton will move up to at least 14th and perhaps within the top 12 by the end of this season. From there, he is one usual season from claiming a top 10 spot, and a regular career finish from eventually laying claim to being one of the five best second overall picks ever and the best pick since J.D. Drew in 1997 (minus Justin Verlander).

The 2008 playoffs brought glory for Upton as he made playoff pitching into a personal round of home run derby. Those 71 plate appearances, where Upton hit seven homers and had an OPS of .985 get mentioned as him at his best and as an expectation for a full season ,or even a half season of work. Those were 16 games. One can find stretches of that length (or longer) during even the most offensively putrid of seasons. Take Upton’s 2009. From June 13 through July 4, Upton had 86 plate appearances, hit four homers, had seven additional extra base hits, and posted a line of .351/.424/.635. After the first two series in 2010, Upton went on a 14-game stretch where he hit .294/.360/.608. In the end, those streaks came and went without lasting fanfare. The playoffs afterglow has not died as easily.

Why is Upton still considered a bust and a disappointment? Why does he need to do more to prove his worth? Jonah Keri provided the most thoughtful response when asked, citing Upton’s young age upon reaching the majors and the higher likelihood of those players to become all-world superstars. Upton is a positive contributor, a good player, and seemingly a good person off the field, but he’ll probably never make an All-Star team or win an award unless it’s a Gold Glove. Instead, his highs — at least offensively – will continue to haunt him. He is who he is – and he is good.

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