Return of B.J. Upton's power stroke the best news for Rays

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b.j. upton swinging.jpgWhile I’m pretty excited about David Price’s performance through two starts, the most promising development for the Rays during their 10-3 run to begin the season has been B.J. Upton’s power surge.
Upton, of course, looked for all of the world like a future superstar when he hit .300/.386/.508 with 24 homers in 474 at-bats as a 22-year-old in 2007. He went backwards in 2008, when he hit just nine homers, but he got on base 38 percent of the time again and then he rediscovered his power when he hit seven postseason homers.
As it turned out, Upton spent the 2008 season playing with a torn labrum in his left shoulder. Still, judging from the power he showed in October, he seemed in position for a strong 2009 after shoulder surgery the previous November.
His power, though, was again missing in action, and this time the rest of his game fell apart with it. He hit just .204/.297/.290 in 45 games through the end of May. A big June followed (.324-5 HR-22 RBI), raising expectations yet again, but he was a complete bust the rest of the way. Outside of June, his best OPS in any month was 622. He had just six homers and 33 RBI in his remaining 455 at-bats for the season.
The ugly season, combined with the likelihood that the Rays would need to free up salary, led many to believe that Upton would be traded last winter. The Rays, though, never appeared to entertain serious conversations with other teams. Upton stuck around, enjoyed a nice spring and has opened the season with four homers and 11 RBI through 13 games. He’s hitting just .234, but he’s walked seven times and he has an 865 OPS.
Besides maybe Evan Longoria, Upton is the most gifted hitter on a Rays team that also features the 2009 AL co-home run leader in Carlos Pena, 2009 MVP candidate Ben Zobrist and three-time All-Star Carl Crawford. He’s not only a threat for 30 homers and 30 steals, but in two of his three full seasons, he’s had signiificantly better OBPs than Crawford has ever managed.
If this is the year the now 25-year-old Upton puts it together, then the Rays just might have the AL’s best offense. Zobrist and Jason Bartlett are in for sizable declines, but the Rays are bound to get better production from catcher and DH and Upton could very well go from a 686 OPS to something in the 900 range.

Yordano Ventura represented the best and worst of baseball’s culture

BOSTON, MA - AUGUST 28:  Yordano Ventura #30 of the Kansas City Royals delivers in the first inning during a game against the Boston Red Sox on August 28, 2016 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)
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It was reported this morning that Royals pitcher Yordano Ventura was killed in a car accident in the Dominican Republic. Former prospect Andy Marte was also killed in a separate car accident. Along with Jose Fernandez and Oscar Taveras, the baseball world has lost a lot of young, exciting talent in a very short amount of time.

Ventura was, like all of us, a complex human being. At his best, he was an exciting, talented, emotive pitcher who featured an electric fastball which sat in the mid-90’s and occasionally touched 100 MPH. At his worst, he was an immature, impressionable kid trying to fit in by exacting revenge against batters he felt had wronged him by slinging those electric fastballs at vulnerable areas of their bodies.

Baseball needed Ventura when he was at his best. It is players like him and Fernandez, not Mike Trout, that bring in new fans to the sport. To baseball die-hards, Angels outfielder Mike Trout is the pinnacle of entertainment because we know he’s an otherworldly talent. But to the average fan, Trout is just another player who hits a couple of homers and doesn’t do anything particularly interesting otherwise. Trout is milquetoast. Ventura was never an All-Star, but fans knew who he was because he made his presence felt every time he made a start. He was fun, if sometimes vengeful.

Ventura’s baseball rap sheet is rather lengthy for someone who only pitched parts of four seasons in the big leagues. Early in the 2015 season, Ventura found himself in a handful of benches-clearing incidents in quick succession. On April 12, he jawed with Trout, apparently misunderstanding the motivation behind Trout yelling, “Let’s go!” Though catcher Salvador Perez intervened, Trout’s teammate Albert Pujols ran in from second base and the benches cleared shortly thereafter. On the 18th, some drama between the Athletics and Royals continued. Ventura fired a 99 MPH fastball at Brett Lawrie, resulting in his immediate ejection from the game. More beanball wars ensued in the series finale the following day. Finally, on the 23rd, Ventura hit White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu with a 99 MPH fastball in the fourth inning. Ventura was not ejected… until after the completion of the seventh inning. Walking back to the dugout, Ventura barked at White Sox outfielder Adam Eaton and — you guessed it — the benches cleared. All told, Ventura was fined for his behavior with the Athletics and suspended seven games for the White Sox incident.

In August 2015, Ventura called Blue Jays outfielder Jose Bautista a “nobody” and accused him of stealing signs. He apologized shortly thereafter. Two months later, during his start in Game 6 of the ALCS against the Blue Jays, Ventura got into it with Jays first base coach Tim Leiper. Nothing happened beyond that, but apparently it was part of the Jays’ plan to try to put Ventura “on tilt.”

Most recently, in June this past season, Ventura hit Orioles third baseman Manny Machado with a pitch. Machado charged the mound and got in at least one punch before the players spilled out onto the field in a blob of royal blue and orange. Ventura was suspended for eight games.

Ventura was by no means a model of civility, but he was a product of baseball’s intransigent culture forcing players to assimilate or be ostracized. The old culture taught players to never show emotion. Hit a home run? Put your head down and circle the bases in a timely fashion or risk taking a fastball to the ribs. Players like Fernandez and Bautista — typically players from Latin countries — challenged those old cultural norms and are, as a result, the vanguard of the new culture. Ventura displayed aspects of each, the worst of the old culture and the best of the new. He was not a one-dimensional person; he was strikingly complex. At one moment willing to use a fastball as a weapon, the next stopping by some kids’ lemonade stand and giving out fist bumps. Baseball is made more entertaining and more interesting by its personalities and Ventura’s was a behemoth, for better or worse. His absence from the sport will be felt.

MLB remembers Yordano Ventura and Andy Marte

BOSTON, MA - AUGUST 28:  Yordano Ventura #30 of the Kansas City Royals delivers in the first inning during a game against the Boston Red Sox on August 28, 2016 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)
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Following the tragic passing of 25-year-old Yordano Ventura and 33-year-old Andy Marte, both of whom were killed in separate car crashes on Sunday morning, players and executives from around Major League Baseball expressed an outpouring of grief and support for the players’ families and former teams.

Fans have gathered at Kauffman Stadium in memory of the former pitcher.