The Braves made a big move Wednesday when they agreed to a five-year deal with free agent outfielder B.J. Upton. Reports have the contract being worth $75.25 million over the term of the contract.
Is this the best move Atlanta could have made? Well, they had to get a significant bat. They obviously believed this was the best player to invest in for the future, and when looking at Upton’s resume it’s hard to argue against the move.
He’s a right-handed hitter. The Braves needed that. He’s a player in his prime. He’ll play most of next year as a 28-year-old. The Braves needed that. He is a five-tool talent. Who doesn’t need that?
It’s a big investment, but the Braves had money to spend and needed outfield help. Upton is a good gamble. He’s a player who has been very good the last few years and could get even better, with a combination of power and speed. There aren’t many players like that around the game.
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There are, however, red flags.
Upton’s batting average has been between .237 and .246 in the last four seasons. He hit a career-high .300 in his first full season in the big leagues in 2007. That was also the season Upton had his highest on base percentage (.386), but that stat has gone down throughout his career.
In fact, Upton’s OBP was .298 this past season. As his OBP went down, Upton’s home run numbers have gone up. He had 24 in that outstanding 2007 season, but then the next year he had nine, followed by 11, then 18, then 23 and then the 28 he had in 2012.
But was he trying to hit more home runs, in his contract year, which in turn made his on base percentage go down?
Also, Upton’s stolen base numbers have decreased in each of the past four seasons. He was at 44 in 2008, when he was 23 years old. Upton had 31 this past season. Will those numbers continue to go down?
And his strikeout numbers are not good, but they’ll be tolerable if he hits home runs. Home run hitters do strike out a lot. Just don’t put Upton back-to-back in the lineup with Dan Uggla.
It will be interesting to see how the five-year contract is structured. The Braves probably tried to backload the deal, allowing Upton to make more money in the final few seasons of the contract. Atlanta will have Brian McCann’s contract off the books after 2013, and it’s unlikely this franchise will be able to afford a new deal for the All-Star catcher.
If Upton makes closer to $10 million in 2013 instead of the average of the deal ($15 million), the Braves would have the chance to acquire yet another outfielder. Maybe Angel Pagan, or Shane Victorino, or even Cody Ross.
And remember, each MLB team will receive close to an additional $20 million starting in 2014 with the new national baseball television contract. So if Liberty Media, the Braves’ owners, allow the front office to spend that money, the Braves will have additional funds in the next few seasons.
If I had structured the Upton deal, I would have tried to get $11.25 million of that $75.25 million for 2013. That would leave $64 million for the last four years of the contract, meaning the Braves could pay Upton $16 million a year from 2014 through 2017 when they should have more financial resources to afford that type of contract.
And if the Braves could pay Upton only $11 million for 2013, that would leave them significant money for another free agent outfielder.
Meanwhile, the Atlanta lineup looks better already. We’re not sure who will leadoff, but the team now has another power threat from the right side. That was sorely needed. Upton could bat third, fourth or fifth, and if he remains a power threat the Braves lineup will be better. With a heavy left-handed lineup, adding the right-handed hitting Upton will only help balance out the batting order.
Don’t expect Upton to bat leadoff. The Braves will continue to look for a leadoff hitter or move Andrelton Simmons into that spot.
Upton’s money, in effect, replaces Chipper Jones’ contract. This is the first time in a while Atlanta has signed a free agent position player to a deal. You have to go back to Andres Galarraga before the 1998 season and Brian Jordan before the 1999 season to find a similar commitment.
The money has changed since then, but the Braves have rarely had this much financial flexibility to make this type of acquisition.
Some will ask if the Braves could have given the same contract to Michael Bourn. Sure, they could have. But we have no idea what Bourn’s agent, Scott Boras, is asking for. Plus, you wonder if the Braves were hesitant to provide a fifth year in an offer to Bourn. He will turn 30 next month, so he’s two years older than Upton.
If Bourn had signed a five-year deal, the Braves would have been paying him a ton of money when he was 33 and 34 years old. With Upton, he’ll be 32 years old in the final season of his Atlanta contract. Upton could probably keep his power numbers as he grows older, even if his stolen base numbers go down a bit. If Bourn’s stolen base numbers decrease, he’s not going to have the power to fall back on.
Are the Braves better off now with Upton in the lineup than they were before? Certainly. But there is much more work to be done. Signing Upton is a good move. The Braves need another hitter, and let’s just hope there is enough flexibility for the Braves to complete the outfield puzzle.
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