Early Friday morning, Jon Heyman reported that the Phillies were early frontrunners to land B.J. Upton. The former #1 pick is a first-time free agent, and is generally considered the perfect fallback plan for teams that either miss out on, or don’t want to pay the hefty price tags of, Josh Hamilton and Michael Bourn.
Upton has spent his entire career with Tampa Bay and combines solid centerfield defense with athletic baserunning ability and 20+ home run power. He is the youngest centerfield free agent, at 28 years old, and is expected to sign for $11-$13 million per season over four or five years. He is a very talented and valuable baseball player in his prime. The Rays made Upton a qualifying offer late Friday afternoon, but he isn’t likely to accept it.
Given how Ruben Amaro tends to operate, if the Phillies are serious about Upton, his signing could be imminent. Amaro’s modus operandi in his brief general managership has involved identifying a target and making the deal happen quickly. He let the market play out with Jimmy Rollins last offseason, but that was an exception, far from the rule.
While I extolled the virtues of one Peter Bourjos yesterday as a legitimate trade target for the Phillies, the situation is starting to have that ‘feel’ that Upton will be our starting centerfielder for the next several seasons. He was always a prime candidate for the Phillies, who love raw athleticism, and if these early reports are any indication Amaro has found his man.
There really isn’t a wrong answer when discussing Upton, Bourjos, Angel Pagan or Shane Victorino for the centerfield post, but Upton represents the best solution among those on the free agent market. His numbers have been deflated by the Trop, he still has untapped potential, and he is worth ~$12 million/yr even without developing further.
The key when evaluating Upton’s offense is that his home stadium in Tampa Bay deflated his general rate stats. Many fans will accept that park factors very obviously play a role in shaping a player’s stats-line and then conveniently ignore that fact when looking at a lower batting average or on-base percentage. Without digging deeper, or incorporating the impact park factors had on Upton’s line the last few seasons, it looks like he has a lower OBP and SLG than is desired for this Phillies lineup. However, as the tone of this paragraph suggests, the actual marks we see on his line are misleading.
From 2010-12, Upton posted a .328 wOBA and 109 wRC+ over 1,883 plate appearances. While wOBA is calculated independent of park or league, wRC+ is adjusted for both to enable accurate comparisons regardless of where someone plays. Upton’s wRC+ indicates he has produced offensively at a rate nine percent above league average. He hit .242/.317/.436 in that span. From 2010-12, Shane Victorino posted a .335 wOBA and 109 wRC+ over 1,900 plate appearances. In that span, he had a .264/.334/.432 line.
It’s important here to note that both Victorino and Upton produced at the same adjusted rate over the last three years. Vic’s slash line can’t just get assigned to Upton, but when thinking about how the latter’s stats might look in a Phillies uniform, Victorino’s line is more telling than Upton’s unadjusted Tampa Bay line. It’s too easy to get caught up in these raw, unadjusted numbers, while simultaneously ignoring or assigning less credit to the data that tells us what the numbers really mean.
In this case, Vic and Upton’s slash lines don’t matter that much. They were both nine percent better than the league offensively. On top of that, Upton’s unadjusted OBP was .317 over the last three seasons. The American League had a .317 OBP over the same span. Offense is declining across the sport — a .317 OBP in today’s junior circuit is perfectly acceptable as league average. Comparisons to the league average need to be stressed more, or we’ll never adjust our mental barometers. We’ll continue to use the 2002-05 averages instilled in our minds to evaluate stats derived in today’s lesser offensive environment.
When evaluating productivity, the context of other available players also matters. The centerfield position is flush with competent players available via trade or free agency. Determining who to pursue or how much that person is worth — in dollars or prospects — is contingent upon everyone else in the group. That makes Amaro’s trends a bit troubling here, as he could up and sign Upton for $60 million over five years next week, only to see Angel Pagan sign for $30 million over three years, or Bourn to have to settle for far less than he originally sought. There is a risk/reward mechanism in play, and such an important position requires the appropriate amount of due diligence. Amaro may have targeted Upton, but how does he compare to other available CFs?
Looking first at offense, per wRC+, the most productive players here have been Upton and Victorino. Pagan isn’t too far behind them. When the BsR — Fangraphs’ baserunning metric — is factored in, Bourn’s case grows stronger. However, Upton, Victorino and Pagan also rate very well on the bases. Simply put, Upton is the best offensive player of the bunch, regardless of his strikeouts or low unadjusted slash line.
He also has the 2nd-highest walk rate among anyone in this group. On the flipside, he also has one of the highest strikeout rates. His rate stats have been reduced not because of impatience or a low BABIP, but because he strikes out.
That’s part of the package, however, and that downside is made up for by advantages elsewhere. No player is perfect, and fixating on the flaws of any as a concrete reason to avoid them, while assigning less credit to their positive attributes, is silly. A Pros and Cons list is unnecessary, but that would show much more in the positive column for Upton.
Fielding has been a little tricky for Upton as the data is all over the place from various sources. In some areas, he is a plus-defender who may have lost a step. In others, he is still a very good fielder. Scouting reports indicate he is a top-notch fielder as well, but not at the Bourjos or Bourn levels. After all, if was excellent in every single area, he would be in line to make as much as Bourn and Hamilton. He has deficiencies relative to other available centerfielders, but his case can be summed up by saying he is good at just about everything, whereas some others are legitimately bad at certain things. Upton isn’t excellent at any particular area, like Hamilton is with power, Bourjos is with fielding or Bourn is with baserunning, but he is consistent, steady and good at many different production aspects.
One area in which he has a bad reputation is his attitude. I’m not going to ignore that, but I’ll simply say this — it’s hard for me to imagine attitude being a problem on a team with Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, etc, etc. The Phillies are a well-respected, highly-professional organization filled with veterans. Deep down, can you really see Upton being a dick — if he really is that way — with these guys around? There is a clear difference between the guys mentioned above and the young nucleus down in Tampa Bay. Attitude isn’t insignificant, it just won’t matter as much with this team.
The offseason is just getting underway and it remains unclear how quickly the Phillies will want to strike. My money is on Amaro making a move soon to get his guy. As we have seen before, even when the market is rich at a certain position, he cares more about identifying the guy he specifically wants and making the deal happen.
If Heyman’s report is an indication that B.J. Upton fits that bill for Amaro, it should surprise nobody if he signs a deal in the next few weeks. Unfortunately, it’s tough to evaluate the terms of a potential deal without seeing what everyone else gets. He may be worth more than $12-$13 million per season, but if he could have been signed for $9 million if the market collapsed, then that obviously makes an impact on a contract evaluation.
Upton combines the best value in multiple areas and is the most attractive free agent candidate for the Phillies. Even if he is a finished product, it’s a pretty darn good product, and I would be a perfectly happy camper to see him roam centerfield for the Phils, wreak havoc on the basepaths, and put up some 20/20 marks over the next several seasons.