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Hitting homer as teenager bodes well for Upton

by Jim Callis
September 9, 2004

CHICAGO—Amazing as it may sound, it has been a good year to be a Devil Rays fan.

Tampa Bay put together 12 consecutive victories in late May and early June, doubling the previous team record. Three days later, Jeff Niemann fell to the Devil Rays as the fourth overall pick in the draft, immediately becoming the best pitching prospect in franchise history to that point.

Carl Crawford played in the All-Star Game in his native Houston, the first time Tampa Bay's representative wasn't a veteran whose best days were behind him or a player enjoying a fluke season. At the end of July, the Mets inexplicably handed the Rays electric lefty Scott Kazmir in exchange for erratic Victor Zambrano.

Tampa Bay began August by ushering shortstop B.J. Upton, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2002 draft and the best prospect in the minor leagues, to the majors. Though Upton was just 19 and only two years removed from high school, he quickly proved he belonged.

In his big league debut Aug. 2 against the Red Sox, Upton went 1-for-3 with a walk. Boston shut him down in the next two games before he launched a nine-game hitting streak. The highlight of that run came on Aug. 17. Facing Anaheim's Kelvim Escobar, Upton took a low-and-away fastball the other way over the right-field fence for his first big league homer. Not that we needed any more evidence that stardom awaits him, but Upton delivered it with that longball.

Exclusive Company

Upton, who went deep again against Oakland's Rich Harden on Aug. 20 before turning 20 the following day, became just the 15th teenager signed after baseball's draft era began in June 1965 to homer in the majors. (Thanks to STATS Inc.'s Jim Henzler for providing the bulk of the statistical research.)

The first player to pull off the feat was Johnny Bench, a Hall of Famer. The youngest was Robin Yount (at age 18 and nearly eight months), another Hall of Famer. The teenager with the most homers in the draft era is Ken Griffey Jr. (16), and he'll likely be a Hall of Famer.

Five other players on the list have at least decent chances to be immortalized in Cooperstown. Alex Rodriguez and Ivan Rodriguez are locks. Juan Gonzalez, Andruw Jones and Gary Sheffield are building legitimate cases.

That's exclusive company, and the list doesn't drop off precipitously after that. Few players accomplished more by 25 than Cesar Cedeno, and he was headed for the Hall of Fame until a broken ankle in the 1980 playoffs wrecked his career. He did play 17 seasons in the majors and made four all-star teams, as did Darrell Porter.

Before Upton, the last two players to homer as teenagers were Aramis Ramirez and Adrian Beltre in June 1998. Both are in the midst of their best seasons and are just entering their primes. If the writers want to give the National League MVP to someone other than Barry Bonds—who, incidentally, was in college at age 19 and didn't hit his first big league homer until he was nearly 22—they might hand it to Beltre, who led the majors in homers.

That would make Beltre the seventh player among the 15 to win an MVP, joining Bench, Gonzalez and Yount (two each), Griffey and both Rodriguezes. Beltre also could become the fifth member of the group to win a league home run title, following Bench (two), Gonzalez (two), Griffey (four) and Alex Rodriguez (three).

Just two of the 15 teenagers to go deep weren't stars, and one of them, Oscar Gamble, spent 17 years in the big leagues and hit 200 homers. The other is truly the exception that proves the rule.

Ricky Seilheimer was a catcher taken 19th overall in the 1979 draft by the White Sox, who rushed him to Double-A and then the majors in 1980. He ripped Hall of Famer Ferguson Jenkins for a homer a month before he turned 20, but collected just two more hits afterward and never returned to the big leagues.

He's So Money

Upton is so talented that before the Devil Rays promoted him from Triple-A, they explored signing him to an unprecedented long-term contract that would cover as many as nine years. (I won't use the term "uniquely talented" because B.J.'s younger brother Justin has identical skills and could be the No. 1 overall pick next year.)

Negotiations eventually broke down, but Tampa Bay wasn't afraid to make a long-term commitment. Nor should the Rays have been.

There's still some question as to whether Upton can settle down enough to play shortstop, and he already has received looks in left field and at third base. Regardless of where he plays, he should grow into an on-base machine with the power to put up 30 homers annually and the speed to post higher numbers in steals.

The future is looking brighter for the Devil Rays. Tampa Bay is on course to avoid last place in the American League East for the first time in their seven seasons. With a nucleus of Upton, Crawford, Rocco Baldelli and Aubrey Huff, and with Delmon Young (116 RBIs at age 18 in his pro debut) on the way, the Rays can begin setting more ambitious goals.

You can reach Jim Callis by sending e-mail to jimcallis@baseballamerica.com.

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