B.J. Upton’s bat still ice cold

sports@macon.comApril 5, 2014 

It’s easy to overreact to things that happen in the first week of a baseball season. We usually wind up reminding ourselves it’s only been one week and that things can change in a hurry.

Hopefully for the Braves’ sake, from the time I write this column to the time you read it, B.J. Upton has done something positive at the plate. But for the first four games, he has simply continued his outrageously bad offense from last season.

What happened to Upton? He hit .255 in his eight seasons in Tampa Bay, but in 130 games with the Braves he has hit just .179. That’s a 76-point dropoff. How often does that happen to someone who should be in their prime?

Last year was bad enough. He had only nine home runs and only 12 stolen bases, after averaging almost 19 home runs and 36 stolen bases in his final six seasons with the Rays. But instead of erasing all fears about whether he can still hit, Upton started this season 1-for-16 with a league-leading nine strikeouts.

How can someone just lose it like this? Upton is 29 years old, so it’s not like he’s ancient. He has just forgotten how to hit, or maybe he never really knew how and just fooled people for a while with his athleticism.

And it’s not just the stats, which are bad enough. He looks awful at the plate. His swing is more like a wave, and he actually couldn’t catch up with fastballs this week that were in the 92-93 mph range.

Oh, and he’s getting paid a little more than $83,000 per game to stink like this.

But hey, the Braves are winning. Remember, they won 96 games last season with Upton and Dan Uggla hitting well below .200. So as long as Atlanta is successful, manager Fredi Gonzalez might not care how badly Upton is doing.

Should Upton be hitting second in the lineup? Absolutely not. Gonzalez undoubtedly is trying to put him in position to succeed, but the Braves averaged two runs a game in the first four games. The pitching, as it did last season, has saved them. But can that continue with all the injuries to the pitching staff?

It’ll be tough.

How long should the leash be on Upton? Sure, he’s getting paid a ton of cash, but no team likes to have a $14 million contract on the bench. If he can’t get on track, how long before they pull the plug and put Jordan Schafer in to start in center and simply have the most expensive reserve outfielder in the game?

May 1 would be my deadline. Give him a month. But if Upton is still below .200, bench him.

That won’t stop the mystery of trying to figure out why this has happened to Upton. Andruw Jones pretty much lost it in 2007 in his final year with the Braves. He had been a .267 hitter coming into that season but hit only .222. After he left the Braves, Jones hit only .210 for the rest of his major league career with four different teams.

Could Upton be going down that same road? The Braves have him under contract for four more seasons, so they better hope not. It makes you think of all kinds of weird things to wonder why he’s struggling so much.

Is it, for example, the presence of Upton’s brother Justin? As weird as it might sound, you need to think about the differences between B.J.’s environment in Tampa Bay and in Atlanta. He didn’t play with Justin with the Rays, but we all know the hoopla last year when they joined the Braves.

Who knows what the reason is, but it’s up to Upton to figure it out. This team really needs him to be successful. He never deserved the size of the contract the Braves gave him, but Upton is better than this. Or is he?

Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 AM in Macon and online at www.foxsports1670.com. Follow Bill at twitter.com/BillShanks and email him at thebillshanksshow@yahoo.com.

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