>Diamondbacks X Factor: Justin Upton

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By Bill

We’re doing a few of these little “X Factor” posts in conjunction with ESPN’s season previews, which will run on the big site tomorrow.

“X Factor” isn’t really a term I’m comfortable using, and especially not for a team whose fate, like the Diamondbacks’, appears to be more or less decided. Last year’s Padres showed that just about anything can happen in the NL West, but Arizona is a team that looks very likely to lose 90 or more games, and no one “factor” is going to suddenly turn this mess into a contender. 

That said, the most interesting and volatile piece of the 2011 Diamondbacks is definitely Justin Upton, the still just twenty-three year old former #1 overall pick (who I will always think of as “the Justin Upton” thanks to a now-completely-forgotten-by-everyone-else line from a Keith Law chat two years ago) entering his fourth year as the team’s starting right fielder.

I think a lot of people are forgetting about Upton’s talent and tremendous potential nowadays. Which you might say is just what always happens: he was the biggest prospect in the game a few years ago, but he’s had a couple underwhelming seasons, and now there’s Jason Heyward — whose skills profile as kind of a left-handed, better Upton, at the same position — and Upton just kind of becomes an afterthought.

The thing that makes it different, though, is that Upton has already had a pretty awesome season, and it was just two seasons ago. The raw numbers are inflated a bit by the park he plays in, but it seems silly to get too particular about a 21 year old who hits .300/.366/.532 with 26 homers and 20 steals in 25 chances. You’d have to figure that someone who did that was destined to be a superstar.

Then, of course, 2010 was a big step back in almost any way. Oddly, his batting average on balls in play stayed almost absurdly high–dropping from .360 to .354–but his power went way down while his strikeouts (which were already something of a problem) went up. He was still a very productive player overall, but .273/.356/.442 with 17 homers is harder to get excited about, especially in that park.

But it’s still just one year, he was still just 22, and he still has worlds of talent. The most interesting thing about the D-Backs’ season, to me, will be seeing what Upton does. Does he take a huge step forward and continue along the Griffey-esque kind of career path it looked like he might be on a year ago? Does he duplicate his 2009 and merely recapture his star status? Or is who he was in 2010 (and 2008) — a productive and useful but non-special and ultimately pretty uninteresting corner outfielder — just who he’s going to be now?

Well, we won’t know who he is six months from now, but we’ll very likely know a lot more then than we do now, and that’s your D-Backs’ X Factor for 2011.

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