The Real Deal

By Nick Piecoro
Updated: April 25, 2008

ARIZONA — The thing everyone talks about is the sound.

They notice everything else first about Justin Upton: the strength and athleticism, the way he looks and acts older, his bat speed, his foot speed.

But when they hear the sound that reverberates when ball meets bat, baseball people nod in agreement. They know this is a special player.

“His sound is different than everybody else’s,” said Mike Rizzo, the former Diamondbacks scouting director who drafted Upton No. 1 overall in 2005 before taking a job with the Washington Nationals. “The sound coming off the bat is like a gunshot.”

And Upton’s progression from unproven player to feared hitter has been like a speeding bullet. The Diamondbacks’ 20-year-old wünderkind of a right fielder elicits the sort of praise that leaves onlookers reaching for superlatives.

In the grand scheme of things, Upton hasn’t done much yet, a fact he is quick to point out. He hasn’t played a full season. He is far from establishing himself in the major leagues.

But he is beginning to show that the comparisons that have accompanied him throughout his much-hyped amateur and short professional career might not be off base.

Upside among the elite

Through his first 80 at-bats this season – we know: only 80 at-bats – he hit .375 with five doubles, one triple and five home runs, putting his on-base-plus-slugging (OPS) percentage at 1.066.

Even if he can’t maintain that kind of incredible pace all season and “cools off” with an OPS below .900, it would still put him in elite company, not only among his contemporaries but also historically for his age.

Since 1901, only 15 players with enough at-bats to qualify for the batting title have posted an OPS better than .800 in their age 20 season or younger. The list is a who’s who of some of the game’s all-time greats, from Ted Williams and Willie Mays to Ken Griffey Jr., and Alex Rodriguez.

Griffey and Rodriguez are two players scouts have used to compare the type of talent Upton has.

“Those comparisons are an honor,” Upton said. “But at the same time you can’t let it get to your head. I still have the whole season to go and hopefully many more.”

Many have begun to wonder how aggressive the Diamondbacks will be in trying to sign him to a long-term contract. Many teams, including the Diamondbacks, who this month signed outfielder Chris Young to a $28 million deal, have been locking up their most-talented young players well before their free-agent years.

Deal or no deal

The Diamondbacks have not yet approached Upton about a long-term deal, and Upton has said he is in no rush to sign. General Manager Josh Byrnes won’t comment on the subject, but the team is bound to try to sign him – and it figures to be a unique negotiation, considering Upton’s talent is unanimously heralded in the industry.

Unlike someone such as Scott Boras, Upton’s representative, Larry Reynolds, figures to be open-minded about a deal. (Reynolds negotiated a record $6.1 million bonus for Upton as the No. 1 pick of the 2005 draft.) Even so, Reynolds is sure to agree with industry onlookers who say Upton’s situation is unusual.

Rival agents believe that with his talent, he will get a deal north of the $31 million contract the Rockies gave shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, a record for a drafted player with less than two years’ service time. That’s if Upton signs after this season.

He could, like his brother, B.J., who plays for the Tampa Bay Rays, hold off on signing a long-term deal, opting instead to get a better read on his value by playing a couple of seasons, though that would be a gamble.

Industry observers also say they wouldn’t be surprised if Upton gets an unusually long deal because of his age, perhaps even eight years.

“He could be the face of the franchise for a long time,” one executive said.

And his moment of contact could be the sound of the franchise.

“It’s a short list of guys who make that sound when they hit it,” Rizzo said. “I remember a young (Darryl) Strawberry having it, a young (Gary) Sheffield, Paul Molitor – that kind of explosion when he squares it up, which is the majority of the time, and that makes it special, too.”