When Atlanta general manager Frank Wren acquired outfielder Justin Upton in January, he hoped he was getting a right-handed slugger. The Atlanta lineup had become too left-handed dependent, and Upton would join his brother, B.J., as right-handed threats in the lineup.
We all know the issues B.J. Upton has had so far, but his little brother has picked up the slack. Justin is probably the early favorite to win the MVP award in the NL with his outstanding start.
The word slugger is often lost in the baseball vernacular. We get so caught up in statistics, thats its all about numbers instead of labels. But for me, a slugger is one who can hit 30 or more home runs and be a constant threat in the lineup.
Before this season, Justin Upton had hit 30 or more home runs only once -- two years ago when he had 31 for Arizona and finished fourth in the MVP voting. With 14 home runs, Upton is on pace to have more than 50 this season.
The Braves have desperately needed a slugger like Upton for several years. Since 2007, the Braves leader in home runs has hit more than 30 only once, and that was two years ago when Dan Uggla had 36. The Braves have been to the playoffs twice in those six years, and that includes the one-game playoff last October with the Cardinals.
For three years, from 2008 through 2010, Brian McCann led the team and averaged only 21.6 home runs per season, with a high of 23 in 2008.
The Braves have been known for their sluggers, from Hank Aaron to Dale Murphy to David Justice. But this is not the first time the front office had to go out and find somebody to be that big threat in the lineup.
After the Braves leader in home runs in 1997 (Ryan Klesko) had only 24, general manager John Schuerholz signed Andres Galarraga, who had 48 home runs in 1998. The Braves had 46 more home runs that season than the year before. Then, in 2002, the Braves had only 164 home runs as a team, the lowest total in a full season since 1992. Schuerholz then got Gary Sheffield, and the Braves hit 71 more home runs in 2003.
As we saw Friday night, with Uptons grand slam against the Dodgers, many of his home runs remind us of the bombs hit by Galarraga and Sheffield when they played at Turner Field.
During the run of division championships from 1991 through 2005, the Braves had a home run leader with 30 or more home runs in all but three seasons. One of those years was the World Series team in 1995, and that season was cut short because of the baseball strike. Fred McGriff had 27 that year, and its likely he would have gone over 30 if it had been a full season.
Having sluggers does not guarantee success, but it certainly helps to have one in the lineup. In this new century, all but two of the 13 World Series champions had at least one player with 30 home runs or more. The San Francisco Giants, both last year and in 2010, fell short of that mark.
Upton is healthy; he wasnt last year and hit only 17. Hes living up to the potential many believed he had when he was drafted first overall back in the 2005 draft. Hes a threat every time he comes to the plate, which is why hes the best slugger in the game today.
The Braves are very good when they hit home runs (23-4), and theres little doubt its a main theme with the team. They have other issues (Justins brother being at the top of the list), but theres no doubt the presence of a slugger gives this team a dimension it has lacked the past few years.
How important is Justin Upton? Well, where would the Braves be without him? Definitely not in first place.
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