By Jonathan Bernhardt
There’s always a few sets of brothers kicking around Major League Baseball. The LaRoches back when Andy was able to make a 40-man, the extremely weird Giles brothers a bit before that; the Drews (J.D., Stephen, and Tim), the Aybars (Erick and Willy) and the Izturii (Cesar and Maicer) -- then back through history, the Cansecos, the Ripkens and the Roenickes, the DiMaggios, the Lieters, the Larkins and the Delahantys (there were actually five Delahanty boys in the pros, which is the most in one clutch by my count: Ed, Frank, Jim, Joe, and Tom). And this is hardly an exhaustive list. If you haven’t thought of at least two sets of brothers I’ve omitted already, I question your dedication to this life of useless trivia called baseball.
Note also that baseball’s hardly alone in this. It’s a trend observed throughout all the major professional sports. Even hockey god Wayne Gretzky had a brother, Brent, who made the NHL; the two of them are responsible for scoring the most points of any brother tandem in hockey history with 2,861 -- Wayne with 2,857, and Brent with four. The next time you hear a scout rave about bloodlines in between critiques of loft and laughing at you for not knowing the difference between control and command, that’s the reason for it: If the physical specifications of an elite athlete are genetic (and they are), then any close relative of theirs is at least worth a look.
Of all the brothers currently plying their trade in the majors, though, by far the most newsworthy, coveted and all-around impressive are Justin and B.J. Upton. They’re not the first two Upton brothers to play in the majors -- a Bill and Tom of no relation played in the '50s. Bill pitched a grand total of five pro innings and Tom hit .225/.313/.288 over three seasons, each with less playing time than the one before. Justin and B.J., on the other hand, have both emerged into upper-tier players at their respective outfield positions. And both will likely be on the move this offseason.
Justin is the big-ticket prize, a first overall draft pick with tools for days who played his first full MLB season when he was 20 years old, and at age 23, in 2011, looked like he was poised to break out into super-stardom the way so many scouts and executives had foreseen. Instead, he hurt his thumb and posted the worst full season stat line of his career. Last season he got dragged into an embarrassingly one-way spat with Arizona’s managing partner Ken Kendrick, who in a baffling and ill-advised interview with a local sports outlet in early June emptied both barrels into Upton and shortstop Stephen of the aforementioned Drew clan. Kendrick meandered off those comments in the days that followed for all the good reasons he should have, as they were at best inadvisable and at worse openly antagonistic, but the cloud over the younger Upton’s future in Arizona continued to darken, if only because as sports journalists, we’re only happy when it rains -- it makes the gamers easier to write.
It’s much less of a mystery why older brother B.J. is in all likelihood leaving the Tampa Bay Rays: as he’s no longer under team control, Upton very understandably wants to get paid, and also presumably to not play home games in a weird stingfish mausoleum filled with madmen wielding cowbells and tiny plastic soccer horns. The free-agent centerfielder pool is deeper this year than at any other position, with Upton and Michael Bourn heading up a class that includes Angel Pagan, Shane Victorino, and likely non-tender candidates Drew Stubbs and Andres Torres. Upton is arguably the best option of all of those, but he’ll demand to be paid like it in years and dollars. And sure, Josh Hamilton could patrol center if you really want to play that game, but you probably instead want to play the one where balls aren’t being hit straight at him and messing with his depth perception, a problem for him at the tail end of last year.
Side note: there’s a noted tendency in this sport for language pertaining to “hustle” -- or more specifically, the lack thereof -- to get slathered all over players of color or foreign birth for infractions such as not wanting to plow full-speed into a wall three times a game (which hurts the team by taking your bat out of the lineup), like Bobby Abreu; or not appearing to “run fast enough” when tracking down balls in the outfield, like Carlos Beltran, because he made moving that fast look that easy. This is generally not what’s happening when people talk about B.J. Upton’s focus on defense, however. He takes plays off. Sometimes it’s possible he misjudges how fast he’s running, and that’s why the ball falls out of reach just as he’s pulling up; other times, well, not so much.
The fact remains that either Upton could find himself wearing one of a half-dozen jerseys by the time the dust settles. But the most interesting suitor by far for younger brother Justin is the Atlanta Braves. The Braves possess something that, per wire reports, the Diamondbacks covet: shortstop Andrelton Simmons. Simmons is young, projectable, has a bunch of upside and most importantly, he’ll be the property of whatever team holds his contract for a few years before arbitration hearings start to become a factor. I can understand why the Braves wouldn’t want to help the Rangers get Upton when all they’d receive in return is Mike Olt, but there’s got to be an allure for Braves brass in cutting out the middle man and getting Upton for themselves. Or maybe I’m just blinded by how awesome having Jason Heyward and Justin Upton opposite each other in the outfield corners would be.
As for B.J., there are a number of different places he could end up, most of them depending on how Michael Bourn’s negotiations to return to the Braves shake out. Atlanta is the sort of organization that loves a player like Michael Bourn -- maybe a little bit too much. The weight they give to his speed, defense, and base-stealing were why they went out and got him from Houston, and they’re why I think they’ll pay the money to keep him. With Bourn settled the market for B.J. Upton likely becomes Texas, Seattle and possibly Cincinnati, but with Billy Hamilton changing positions from “fast runner guy” to centerfielder in the AFL it’s obvious how the Reds see the future of that position. If they need a stopgap they’re more likely to try to pry Denard Span away from Minnesota again than they are to commit the years and money B.J. Upton will pull. There’s also the distinct possibility that he’ll go to Philadelphia, which sounds like it’d be really funny until you realize how virulently nasty the local sports talk radio would get the first time Upton “misjudged” a fly ball.
My favorite scenario, though, and one that looked almost likely a few days ago before those show-offs in Toronto and Miami stole the spotlight back, is the one where both Justin and B.J. end up patrolling the outfield for the Texas Rangers --B.J. coming in as a free-agent signing to replace the departing Josh Hamilton, and Justin acquired in trade from the Diamondbacks for, let’s say, Elvis Andrus straight up. Personally I think that’s a clear win for the Rangers; they’re lucky enough to play in a home park that won’t disturb Justin Upton’s home/away splits and can also trade away their top-tier starting shortstop without worrying too much about finding a replacement. The Diamondbacks wanted Andrus, too, almost as bad as Simmons (who Texas tried to deal for, in order to flip him) but reports were that Texas would have none of it. Which is sad, because a Justin Upton-B.J. Upton-Nelson Cruz outfield would be a lot of fun to watch for a variety of reasons.
And no, Rangers fans, I wouldn’t be upset in the least about Justin pushing David Murphy out of left field. Why would I? He’s not even Daniel Murphy’s brother.
* * *
Bernhardt is a freelance sportswriter who has contributed to Baseball Prospectus, The Classical and ESPN's Sweet Spot blog network, among others. You can follow him on Twitter @jonbernhardt.