- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
Atlanta Braves outfielder Justin Upton is off to an MVP start to 2013, finishing April atop the ESPN Player Rater and leading the majors in home runs with 12, while nobody else is in double digits. Of course, Upton's excellence hasn't exactly produced the commensurate RBI total one would expect, since he's not even in the top 10 in that category with 19. Upton has fewer RBIs than Yuniesky Betancourt! Upton is on pace for a ridiculous 75 home runs but only 118 RBIs. Obviously, that rate of home runs to RBIs would be unprecedented.
Knowing that fantasy owners can always find something to complain about, let's take a closer look at Upton's relatively modest RBI total, at least considering that he's slugging .734. It's not his fault that the top of the lineup has been terrible. Talk about missing Michael Bourn! Atlanta's leadoff hitters entered Tuesday with a .208 batting average and .289 OBP, which is bad enough, but check out the No. 2 hitters: They were hitting .126 with a .241 OBP! No wonder Upton hasn't been knocking in many runs!
The story changed a bit Tuesday night, which is important because for Upton to remain fantasy's top player, which is certainly possible with his combination of power/speed skills, he needs runners on base to accumulate RBI as well. Until Tuesday, little was working, including the terrible job his older brother B.J. Upton had done leading off. Young defensive wizard shortstop Andrelton Simmons, previously moved out of the role and back Tuesday, led off the bottom of the first inning Tuesday with a home run in the 8-1 blowout of the Washington Nationals, and finished with three hits and three runs. Corner infielder Chris Johnson leads the NL in batting, and he hit second for the first time this season, producing two hits and two runs scored, though Upton did not knock anyone in.
Simmons doesn't project to be Bourn as an on-base option or base stealer, but he's drawn eight walks already and makes good contact, which is enough on a team without leadoff choices. Johnson is a lesser fit hitting second, as he's walked twice in his 22 games while whiffing 19 times. Outfielder Jason Heyward was really struggling as the No. 2 hitter, but he does draw walks, hit for power and steal bases. He's on the disabled list and eligible to return this weekend after an appendectomy, but news came Tuesday he might need most or all of May before playing again, which certainly doesn't help Justin Upton or the lineup as a whole. It means longer opportunity for Jordan Schafer and Reed Johnson, but neither is a high on-base option.
The truth is the Braves don't have terrific options for the top of the lineup, bringing back recent memory of the 2012 Cincinnati Reds. With shortstop Zack Cozart literally leading the way, the Reds' leadoff hitters set a record for futility with a .254 OBP, and the No. 2 lineup spot was below league average as well. It might explain why Reds No. 3 hitters (mostly Joey Votto) were 25th in MLB with 84 RBIs. You've gotta have men on base! While manager Dusty Baker took the hit for his lineup construction, let's be fair, the team still won 97 games, and it's not like he had a Shin-Soo Choo buried in the No. 7 spot. Now he does have Choo leading off, and it's going superbly.
In terms of what Simmons' progress and Heyward's health means to the big Justin Upton picture, it bears watching. This Upton start looks legit. I don't want to sell high on him because as soon as the Arizona Diamondbacks foolishly dumped him this winter I was all in, ranking Upton 10th overall, a first-rounder. Clearly healthy, the power is legit, he's taking walks, he stealing bases and he's 25 years old, not even in his prime. Using the definition of what the term selling high means, I suppose if you don't think Upton is going to finish as fantasy's top player, then you should explore trade options and see whether someone else believes otherwise, thus might really overpay, and shop him. I'd shop anyone, frankly, to see whether that could be a reality. Albert Pujols plus a struggling top starting pitcher like Stephen Strasburg or Matt Cain for Upton. Hey, it's not so outrageous that someone would offer it, and you would -- and should -- take it.
If drafting today, Upton certainly wouldn't leave my top 10. He'd have some different company, like Nationals stud Bryce Harper, whom I predicted for NL MVP honors. Upton isn't going to hit 75 home runs. I could see 40 of them, though, with 20 stolen bases and a .290 batting average. But it's up to Simmons, Heyward, Johnson and whatever else the Braves try at the top of the lineup that will dictate to some degree Upton's RBI potential, whether it's 100 or 120. Forgetting the Mark McGwire, Dave Kingman and Adam Dunn types who hit many home runs without piling on the RBIs, in part because they basically hit only home runs, some decent players have hit 40-plus homers in the past 20 seasons without reaching 100 RBIs. Alfonso Soriano did it in his magical 40-40 season for Washington in 2006, and for the New York Yankees three years prior, but he mainly led off. Barry Bonds did it a few times, though he failed to knock in runs because he was being walked half the time. Adrian Gonzalez had a season like that. Derrek Lee should have knocked in 150 for the 2005 Chicago Cubs, but the likes of Corey Patterson leading off (thanks, Dusty) squashed that. Giancarlo Stanton hit 37 homers and knocked in only 90 just last year!
Upton is on pace for more than 100 RBIs, so it's too early to panic, but man, it would be nice if Simmons would consistently get on base and Heyward would, basically, get healthy quickly and hit. Entering Wednesday, there are 102 hitters who have come to the plate with more men on base than Upton's 57, including Daniel Nava, Yunel Escobar, Justin Smoak, no Braves and five New York Mets, including Ruben Tejada. Sometimes life isn't fair. For the record, the top 10 for seeing men on base this season is a bit odd in a few places, but in order: Mike Napoli, Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, Dustin Pedroia, Brandon Phillips, Chris Young, Jay Bruce, Matt Kemp, Cozart and Victor Martinez. Cozart, really?
Ultimately, the Braves are cruising along, just like last year's Reds did, so we're mainly talking about one of Upton's five fantasy categories. I'd hold on to him unless the offer is overwhelming, because based on the success of others, this great start could turn into a really great start soon.
Eric Karabell looks at the issue with Justin Upton's curiously low RBI totals in relation to his tremendous home run totals.