By Andrew Perna
A number of teams are looking for help in center field this offseason and the Braves are the first to check such a need off their list. Atlanta agreed to a five-year, $75.25 million contract with B.J. Upton on Wednesday and the 28-year-old, who has only played for the Rays in his Major League career, put ink to paper by Thursday afternoon.
Upton, who was also courted by the Phillies and perhaps even the Giants, will become just the third outfielder 28 or younger to play under a $75 million-plus contract when he takes the field for the Braves on Opening Day. The others were Manny Ramirez (2000, Red Sox) and Carlos Beltran (2004, Mets).
The rising value of contracts in baseball and a hot market for speedy outfielders, of which he was the youngest, allowed Upton to land such a lucrative deal. He's in his prime years, but doesn't hold a candle to what Ramirez and Beltran were in their respective primes.
As Buster Olney points out here, Upton's value increased in part thanks to a strong finish to this past season. He had just 10 home runs and a .298 on-base percentage in early August, but rebounded with 18 homers over Tampa Bay's last 50 games. He finished his final campaign as a Ray with a line of .246/.298/.454, 78 RBI, 31 stolen bases and nearly four times as many strikeouts as walks.
When shown those pedestrian numbers supporters of the deal will counter that Upton had a down year and the Braves are playing less than they would had he hit free agency after his breakout season (.300/.386/.508 with 24 home runs, 82 RBI and 22 stolen bases). The problem with that? Upton put up those numbers in 2007, his first full season in the Majors and he hasn't produced as efficiently since.
He's considered a plus-defender, but has posted a below-average dWAR in each of the last three seasons. In his six full seasons, he's been above replacement on defense only twice and only marginally so in those years. Despite his low averages, he's a good offensive player, which has allowed him to finish with a WAR of at least 1.0 in five of his six seasons.
Upton will now patrol center at Turner Field, which isn't an easy job. He replaces another free agent, Michael Bourn, who was baseball's best defender in 2012. Defensive metrics are tricky and much less reliable than offensive ones, but it's clear that they aren't in Upton's favor when compared to Bourn or even the average outfielder.
Offensively, Upton has a nice mix of tools -- including power and speed. However, his 2012 season wasn't as much of a startling "low" as you might expect. His ability to reach base has gradually declined over the last six seasons from .386 in 2007 to .313 to 2009 to .298 in 2012. Upton has a propensity to strike out, especially against flame-throwers. He's always been a bit streaky at the plate and the Braves shouldn't expect anything different at his age.
While some may not be enamored with the value of the deal, the length Atlanta signed Upton for is just right. A five-year deal will lock him up through his prime seasons as he'll be just 33 when he becomes eligible to hit the open market once again. If Freddie Freeman and Jayson Heyward mature, they would form a youthful core along with the veteran Upton.
Grade for Upton: A
Upton hit the market at the perfect time. He plays a position that is in demand and was the most attractive option given his age, ability to hit for power and enticing speed. He's not going to be as good defensively as Bourn was or is, but can win games with his bat.
Grade for the Braves: C+
If Upton hit the market at just the right time, the Braves found themselves with a hole in center field at exactly the wrong time. Bourn played himself into several courtships as a free agent with a great 2012 season and with a few other National League powers chasing Upton, the Braves had to make a strong play. It was reported shortly after the contract agreement that Philadelphia was only willing to offer Upton a deal worth $55 million.
He isn't perfect for the Braves, but will likely perform better at the plate than he did in 2012 and his supporting cast is better and deeper than perhaps it ever was in Tampa Bay. Upton is now paid like a superstar and Atlanta's best player. If they ask him to be that player on a nightly basis, they won't necessarily be happy with the return.
Atlanta Braves, Tampa Bay Rays, Signing