The Atlanta Braves have been making some dramatic noises in the 2019 MLB Playoffs as they battle the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Division Series. One key contributor to this turnaround has been Adam Duvall, with a dramatic Game 2 home run and another big hit to put the team ahead in Game 3 Sunday. Many are pointing to his 2019 season that saw him demoted to AAA for most of the season, only to come up after some injuries and now make himself a key part of this roster off the bench for the club. I argue that this is all due to one of the worst free agent signing in Atlanta Braves history…BJ Upton.
Upton infamously signed a 5 year $72M deal with the Braves to start in the 2013 season. He even made the cover of Sports Illustrated after the Braves traded for his brother Justin and supermodel turned Justin Verlander wife Kate Upton. It is generally considered one of the worst free agent signings ever, yet if you follow it long enough, it just might turn around. So let me be the first Braves fan to say “Thank you, BJ Upton”.
The 30 Major League clubs are like 30 different similar looking puzzles going on at one time, interlocking with each other with changing pictures on the box all the time. Sometimes pieces are perfect fits with the clubs they are at, but other times they are near fits, that actually fit in better with another team in a different position. Maybe that blue you think is sky is actually water, if we want to carry the analogy a bit too far.
BJ Upton is the puzzle piece that has brick on it, so at first glance you think it will fit with the brick wall, but no matter which way you turn it, it never actually fits and you realize it wasn’t part of the puzzle you were working on at all(OK now the analogy is too far).
This is the backstory on how BJ Upton in a roundabout way has led to the Braves success so far this post season:
After just two dismal seasons under the contract, BJ Upton was traded from the Braves to the Padres in December 2014(thanks for sticking with me this far) along with Craig Kimbrel, a promising young Padres starter named Matt Wisler was included in the deal along with some other forgettable players like Jace Peterson. Personally, I was very high on Matt Wisler, as well as another Padres prospect who was traded that winter from the Padres for brother Justin Upton after recently undergoing Tommy John surgery – Max Fried.
As the Braves entered year 3 of the rebuild, I thought Wisler was the anointed one to take over the Maddux/Glavine/Smoltz throne, and he began the 2016 season with promise, blanking the Washington Nationals with an 8 inning masterpiece. He would flash some promise throughout the season, but in the end it was becoming clear he wasn’t quite making the jump to being the new ace.
In 2018, as the Braves took aim at winning the NL East for the first time since 2013, he was jettisoned to the Reds for 2016 All Star Adam Duvall, who had cratered to hitting below .200 with a lack of power by late 2018. He unfortunately did not do much with the Braves either, mustering 7 hits in 53 at-bats. He went to the minor leagues for the Braves in 2019, as they had their outfield crowded up with Ronald Acuna Jr, Ender Inciarte, Nick Markakis, and in left field Austin Riley emerged after an early Ender injury and took the league by storm. Matt Joyce was the bench bat and extra outfielder when needed. Poor Adam Duvall was an afterthought, as the Braves just wanted to figure out what to do with Ender when he was healthy and to keep Riley in the lineup.
Then, as baseball has a way of doing, things started working out for Duvall. He got his OPS up to .965, hit over 30 home runs and by all accounts was the consummate professional. At the major league level, Inciarte healed, returned, then got hurt again. Riley started cooling off, then got hurt, and was so bad upon his return barely played. Enter Adam Duvall. He hit 10 homers in just over 100 AB’s with would be a career high OPS of .882, and the Braves needed him on the DS roster.
In Game 1, he entered as a pinch hitter and was walked, but stayed in the game in left. Immediately he was tested and threw out a potential run with a throw from left field to end a rally. Unfortunately, the Braves couldn’t rally quite enough, and lost 8-7.
After losing Game 1 of the Division Series, the Braves found themselves in a hole for Game 2 facing the Cardinals ace Jack Flaherty. In Game 1, the Braves bullpen had blown a 3-1 lead, and here in Game 2 they had a 1-0 with Mike Foltynewicz looking like the ace he had been in 2018, but had gone down to AAA to sort things out as well. So when Adam Duvall was sent up to pinch hit in the 7th, perhaps the two players felt the kindred spirit between them. Both had been recent All Stars and “next big things”, but found the majority of their 2019 seasons in AAA Gwinnett. Now, they were in the playoffs, and Duvall looked to help out his teammate. The crowd booed, and many fans who were watching did not want Folty out. Then Duvall smashed a Flaherty pitch over the wall for a 3-0 lead, one which they would not relinquish to win Game 2.
Thanks Matt Wisler, for being traded for Adam Duvall.
Game 3 was even better for the team, as the Braves were down to their final out after being shut out by 8 throwback-dominant innings from Adam Wainwright. Wainwright was a former first round draft pick of the Braves traded to the Cardinals along with Jason Marquis and Ray King for JD Drew and Eli Marrero in 2003. After Dansby Swanson tied it up, it was Duvall again who singled in two more runs and give the Braves the lead they would need to once again win the game.
The playoffs are full of moments, and stories, and players like this. When you scroll through the post-season MVP lists, you are just as likely to see Derek Jeter as you are Cody Ross. Where Steve Pearce crosses paths with Albert Pujols. At this moment, if the Braves are able to win another game and win the Division Series, the MVP would surely be Duvall, but there is still a lot of baseball left to be decided. As often as Reggie Jackson is remembered as Mr. October, its Francisco Cabrera finishing off the Pirates in 1992 after having just 3 hits in 1992 and only getting 20 more in the majors before one more season in 1995 only in AAA.
What doesn’t need to be decided is knowing that Duvall is the puzzle piece the Braves didn’t know they needed, and he fits in just perfectly.
Let this be the last time a Braves fan ever has to say, “Thank you BJ Upton”.