Atlanta Braves Do Well to Sign Talented Outfielder B.J. Upton

The Atlanta Braves signed the most talented center fielder on the market when they agreed with B.J. Upton on a five-year, $75.25 million contract on Wednesday.

Upton offers the most upside of any free agent outfielder because of his combination of youth, speed, power, range and arm strength. He’ll enter the final year of this contract in 2017 at age-32, which is the age Nick Swisher, Josh Hamilton, Angel Pagan and Shane Victorino, the other key free agent outfielders, will play at next season.

Upton is a five-tool player that has failed to live up to the lofty expectations of being the number two pick of the draft a decade ago and being ranked as the game’s number two prospect back in 2004.

In his first full season in the big leagues in 2007 he hit .300/.386/.508 with 24 homers and 22 steals, but he’s failed to match that level of offensive production in the five years since.

His batting average and on-base percentage have nose-dived since that breakout campaign. He’s become more aggressive at the plate, swinging at the first pitch as often as just about anyone in the game. His hacking at the plate has caused his walk rate to plummet from 15 percent in 2008 down to 7 percent last season, while his strikeout rate has shot up from 21 percent in 2008 to close to 27 percent last year.

If Upton could improve his walk and strikeout rates back to the levels he displayed in 2008, he could be an MVP-candidate because of his speed and positional value. He’s stolen at least 30 bases in each of the last four seasons while also being an asset on the bases by being able to score from first on doubles.

Upton ranked as a below average defender last season according to all of the advanced defensive metrics, but Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) and Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA) had him as above average in 2010 and 2011. Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) ranked him as below average in 2011 and 2012, and atrocious in 2010:

Metric: 2012/2011/2010

FRAA: -6.5/+1.5/+4.5

UZR: -2.4/+1.4/+1.4

DRS: -4.0/-7.0/-19.0

Since we lack clearly reliable defensive metrics, it’s extremely difficult to quantify Upton’s defense. It’s also difficult to project his offense going forward given the overall potential he showed earlier in his career compared to the high-power, low-contact, low-walk profile he’s displayed over the past few seasons.

At 28, Upton still has a chance to put it all together at the plate, on the bases and in the field. However, just because he’s young doesn’t mean that he’s going to automatically improve during this contract.

I like the gamble for the Braves, especially given his youth compared to the alternatives on the free agent market. In addition to youth being on his side, getting out of pitcher-friendly Tropicana Field and the more challenging American League East division should help Upton as well.

He has all the tools to be a star, but the further into the past that 2007 season gets, the more likely it becomes that this is as good as it gets for B.J. Upton. It’s a good package, just not the great one the Braves might hope they are getting.

Enhanced by Zemanta