The brothers will get what they wanted most, to play together on the same major league team. But don’t expect Braves outfielders Justin Upton and B.J. Upton to always be genial and polite to one another on the field or in the clubhouse.
“We’re going to butt heads a little bit,” Justin Upton said, smiling Tuesday during his first news conference since being traded from Arizona last week.
And don’t look for them to buy houses in the same Atlanta neighborhood or condos in the same building.
“No,” Justin said, without hesitation. “We’ll see each other plenty at the field. Obviously we’ll ride to the field together sometimes. But we both have lived on our own. We need our space.”
That said, the once-improbable union of Upton boys in Atlanta’s outfield is a dream come true not only for them, but for their parents, Manny and Yvonne of Norfolk, Va. The Braves signed older B.J. to a five-year, $75.25 million contract on Nov. 29, and last week acquired Justin from Arizona in a seven-player trade.
“I told my wife, I might have tears in my eyes on Opening Day when they’re down on the field together,” Manny Upton said. “It’s going to be special.”
Exactly two months after signing B.J., 28, to the largest free-agent contract in franchise history and introducing him as their new center fielder, the Braves introduced Justin Upton as their new left fielder during a similar news conference in the same Turner Field auxiliary clubhouse.
Manny and Yvonne Upton sat in the same place up front, again beaming as their son pulled on a new Braves jersey for the first time, this a No. 8. (Justin wore No. 10 with the Diamondbacks, but Braves No. 10 belonged to Chipper Jones for 19 seasons and won't be worn again with Jones now retired.)
“Little did we know that when we sat in this room and welcomed B.J., that we’d have the opportunity to get a second Upton,” said Braves general manager Frank Wren, who got Upton and third baseman Chris Johnson from Arizona in a Thursday trade for versatile veteran Martin Prado, young right-hander Randall Delgado, pitching prospect Zeke Spruill and two minor league infielders, Nick Ahmed and Brandon Drury.
Spruill was only the Braves’ seventh-best pitching prospect, and the team didn’t trade any of its other top-10 overall prospects including pitchers Julio Teheran or J.R. Graham, coveted by Arizona. Earlier in the offseason, Diamondbacks GM Kevin Towers was told Atlanta shortstop Andrelton Simmons was off-limits, effectively quashing the first round of Justin-to-Atlanta trade talks.
The talks were re-started about 10 days ago, Wren said, and this time the teams were able to work out a deal.
The Braves gave up Prado, 29, a former All-Star second baseman and one of the more popular players and clubhouse leaders. But in Justin Upton they got a hugely talented 25-year-old who already made two All-Star teams and finished fourth in MVP balloting in 2011, when he hit .289 with career-bests of 31 homers, 88 RBIs, 21 stolen bases and an .898 OPS.
Justin Upton is three years younger, but thicker (6 feet 2, 205 pounds), louder and more outspoken than B.J. (6-3, 185).
The two grew up playing backyard baseball together and last played on the same team in high school, when B.J. was a standout and Justin was his kid brother who basically just came along for the ride, Manny Upton said. B.J. was a senior and Justin a freshman at the time, and that fall travel team, the Tidewater Mets, had David Wright, Ryan Zimmerman and other future pro ballplayers.
“Yeah, it’s a special day for my family, to have an opportunity to see me and my brother on the same field,” Justin Upton said Tuesday. “I’m excited to be here, excited to be part of the Braves organization -- a team with history, and it’s a great young team, athletic. Great outfield. I’m looking forward to playing beside B.J. and Jason [Heyward] out there. It’s a great opportunity and I’m excited to put this uniform on and play for this organization…
“I think we [Uptons] will bring some energy to the field. There’s a comfortability there, being able to talk through some things. We’re going to butt heads a little bit. That’s going to be the fun part. We grew up in the same house; we butted heads then. We’re going to be in the same clubhouse, we’re going to butt heads again. It’ll be fun. There will be a certain fire.”
Justin Upton is a career .278 hitter with a .357 on-base percentage, and in the past four seasons had 120 doubles, 91 homers and 310 RBIs, and is regarded as one of the National League’s best defensive right fielders. The Braves have Gold Glove winner Heyward in right, and Upton quickly agreed to move to left field, a position he’s never played.
“I’ve caught a fly ball before, fielded a ground ball before,” he said. “So the more reps I can get from the left side of the field it’s going to be key in spring training. I think it should be a pretty smooth transition. Obviously it’s a change, so it’s going to take a little bit of time. But I think I’ll get used to it.”
Between B.J. Upton’s five-year contract and the $38.5 million that Justin is owed over the remaining three years of his deal, the Braves have a $113.75 million commitment to the Uptons -- and what could be the majors’ best outfield.
“We’re really excited to add Justin to our organization,” Wren said. “We think it gives us one of the most dynamic outfields in all of baseball. We think it really improves what we’ve been really looking to do over the last few years -- get younger and more athletic and have that kind of offensive that can be explosive.
“I think we have a much-improved offense over what we had a year ago, and we have a young outfield that we can grow with. They’re all under control at least three years, so I think we’ll have some stability out there as we continue to have young players. We have three players in [Freddie] Freeman, Heyward and Simmons that are all 23 years old. I think that bodes well for us as we go forward.”
The Angels’ trio of Josh Hamilton, Mike Trout and Mark Trumbo might put up greater offensive numbers. But Trumbo is only serviceable defensively and Hamilton is showing wear and tear, so the Braves should have an edge defensively.
The Braves’ outfield trio is comprised of high first-round picks– Tampa Bay took B.J. with the second selection of the 2002 draft and Arizona made Justin the No. 1 overall pick in ‘05. Heyward was the 14th pick in 2007.
Justin Upton’s production declined in 2012 (.280, 17 homers, 67 RBIs) when he played through a thumb injury. The trio of Heyward and the Uptons had combined totals of 83 doubles, 72 homers, 70 stolen bases and 227 RBIs last season, and appear capable of significantly more.
Each has hit least 27 homers in a season, each has surpassed 80 RBIs, and each has at least 21 stolen bases (B.J. Upton has a career-high 42 steals in a season).
Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said that with Brian McCann injured much of last season and others struggling at times, he had to mix-and-match the middle of the batting order according to the opposing pitcher. Not anymore. He is leaning toward using Simmons at leadoff, Heyward in the 2-hole and Justin Upton third, and said the middle of his order will be set with the two Uptons and McCann, if the catcher returns strong from offseason shoulder surgery.
"When you have B.J. and Justin and a healthy McCann, that's the middle of your lineup," Gonzalez said. "It doesn't matter who’s pitching against you that night. Those are your three. Having those three there, it's going to be a little easier."
For Justin Upton, the trade to Atlanta was the best possible outcome after all the trade rumors he’s endured since Towers became GM. Upton signed a six-year, $51.25 million in March 2010, five months before Towers arrived. The trade rumors have persisted for two years, and an Arizona official described Upton as enigmatic.
Asked Monday if the trade rumors had been frustrating, Upton said, “Your name is going to come up, and being traded is part of the business. I think more than anything, kind of the way it was perceived in the media was a little bit frustrating, how constant it was. Other than that, I’ve heard trade rumors before so it was a little easier to deal with.
“And the last few days have been good, because walking into this clubhouse and shaking hands, it feels like a place where they want to win and they want me to be part of it.”
On the day Upton was traded, former Diamondbacks outfielder Luis Gonzalez, now a special assistant to the team president, said on a Phoenix radio station that Upton fluctuated between playing like a superstar and going “in his shell” when slumping. Gonzalez also said he found Upton’s leadership lacking sometimes.
Upton took the high road when asked about those comments, which were unusual for a team official after a trade.
“A lot of times when a trade of this magnitude is made, there has to be some justification for it,” Upton said. “There has to be a reason for it. That’s what he thought his reason was.
“I don’t remember being in the clubhouse with him at any point and my leadership skills being on display. To be honest with you, I don’t know where it came from. But I’m excited to be a Brave.”
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