The artist formerly known as B.J. Upton has been, to say the least, a significant disappointment since arriving in Atlanta with a five-year contract worth approximately $75 million. Simply stating that Upton's performance has been sub-par isn't controversial, and to be honest, there is no need to rehash this point. However, Melvin Upton Jr. is still being discussed in some circles as a key member for the 2015 Atlanta Braves.
As a part of their 2015 MLB preview, Sports Illustrated projected the Braves for just 71 victories (sigh) and in the process, Stephanie Apstein referenced Upton as the team's "X-factor" while saying this:
Upton showed flashes of All-Star caliber tools after the Rays took him with the second pick of the 2002 draft, had a great '08 postseason and averaged a respectable 2.7 WAR in his six full seasons with Tampa Bay, but he’s been the worst regular in baseball since. In 2014, he flopped to a .208/.287/.333 line in 582 plate appearances, with his 75 OPS+ ranking as the sixth-lowest mark among all qualified hitters last season (Simmons was fifth at 74). In his two seasons with the Braves, Upton's line is a miserable .198/.279/.314 with 324 strikeouts.
Mechanical problems may be at the root of Upton's slump. He’s always tended toward flexing the bat twice during his swing, making it tough for him to catch up to anything, and that's festered since he arrived in Atlanta. Upton is likely out until May with inflammation in his left foot, but if he's able to finally regain his Tampa Bay form upon returning, he could help the Braves surprise some people.
The slash line says it all.
Melvin Upton has produced a .198/.279/.314 mark at the plate over two seasons, and while the 2014 season was admittedly an improvement based on 12 home runs and 20 stolen bases, no one was "excited" by this uptick. Throw in the fact that the now 30-year-old Upton is expected to miss at least the first month of the season, and fans of the Atlanta Braves seem to have basically forgotten about his existence.
Are they wrong to have moved on?
Eric Young Jr. has been quite effective in the Spring, but he is a below-average defensive player with a career .332 slugging percentage in more than 1,500 MLB plate appearances. In short, he isn't a fantastic everyday option.
Obviously, the quick response to the statement above is that, well, Melvin Upton hasn't been very good either. Still, Upton has at least flashed high-end upside in the past (which netted him the $75 million contract) and with a new hitting coach in place with Kevin Seitzer, there is some reason to believe that Upton can regain at least part of the level of play that netted 28 home runs and 31 stolen bases during his final campaign in Tampa Bay.
However, whispers of the Braves simply moving on from Upton entirely persist, and some even believe that he will never set foot on the field in an Atlanta uniform again (a la Dan Uggla). That is likely an overstatement, but would it really be a shock if Melvin was never the full-time option in center field again? Probably not.
As a long-time defender of B.J. (now Melvin) Upton, it doesn't feel insane to think that he could bounce back to some degree. However, calling him the "X-factor" of the 2015 Atlanta Braves seems misguided, especially in the event that he may miss six weeks with no guarantee of a full-time gig upon return.
On the bright side for those who still believe? He is owed more than $45 million over the next three seasons. That is plenty of incentive to provide every opportunity for success.