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Upton addition good fit for Braves
I’m not sure I agree — Upton, after more than 4,000 major league at-bats, doesn’t figure to change much as a player.
But taking every factor into consideration — age, money, performance — the Braves picked the free-agent center fielder who fit them best.
Upton, 28, will play above-average defense, help balance a predominantly left-handed lineup and hit with enough power to profile in a corner-outfield position in the latter part of his five-year contract, if necessary.
Granted, $75.25 million may seem excessive for a player who last season produced a career-low .298 on-base percentage and struck out a career-high 169 times.
But Upton also hit 28 homers, produced an OPS of approximately .750 for the third consecutive season and offered base-running value, stealing 31 bases in 37 attempts.
Is he perfect? None of the free-agent center fielders is perfect. But for the Braves, the others on the market just made less sense.
• Josh Hamilton. Never mind his addiction and injury questions. The Braves don’t play in the $100 million neighborhood; Upton’s contract is the largest for a free agent in franchise history.
• Michael Bourn. See above. Bourn, represented by Scott Boras, almost certainly wants more years and more dollars than the Braves gave Upton. He offers value as a leadoff man — currently a void for the Braves — and rated higher than Upton defensively last season according to advanced metrics. But he lacks power, and his game is based almost entirely on speed. Some teams fear that when his legs go, he might rapidly decline.
• Angel Pagan. Likely will cost less than Upton, but comes with greater risk. Pagan, a switch-hitter, offered all-around brilliance last season for the World Series champion San Francisco Giants, particularly after he moved to the leadoff spot. But he is three years older than Upton and his injury history is a concern.
• Shane Victorino. Actually, the Braves still could sign him — to hit leadoff and play left field. Victorino, who turns 32 on Friday, is coming off a disjointed, career-worst season with Philadelphia and the Los Angeles Dodgers. But he still went 39-for-45 in stolen-base attempts and is just one year removed from his best season, when he had an .847 OPS.
The Braves’ next move, in fact, could be as fascinating as their first — and Victorino is but one option.
Span would be a dream fit, batting leadoff and joining Upton and Jason Heyward in an all-world defensive outfield (Span actually rated much higher than Upton in center last season, though would play left for the Braves).
The Cincinnati Reds also like Span and could start a package with right-hander Mike Leake, the likely odd man out with lefty Aroldis Chapman moving to their rotation. But the Braves can offer a greater range of starters to the pitching-hungry Twins, if the talks revive.
Keep in mind: The Braves don’t necessarily need to acquire a left fielder who would double as their leadoff man; they could use Andrelton Simmons or even Martin Prado at the top of the order, with Prado playing third base.
A free agent such as Cody Ross would fit at the right price (probably not for three years). Upton’s younger brother, Arizona right fielder Justin Upton, would be an even more tantalizing possibility, but likely would cost too much in both dollars and prospects.
Another option would be to keep Prado in left and try Juan Francisco at third. Sounds like a stretch, but Francisco, 25, is going off in the Dominican winter league, displaying monster power. Come to think of it, this might be the perfect time to trade him, considering the scarcity of third basemen in the majors.
In any case, the first piece is in place.
The Braves’ theory on Upton is that he faced too much pressure to produce in the weak Tampa Bay lineup, particularly last season when third baseman Evan Longoria appeared in only 74 games due to injury.
Upton’s low walk rate, high strikeout rate and low contact rate support the Braves’ argument. But will he actually hit better in a better lineup, most likely in the second or sixth spot? Remains to be seen.
The Philadelphia Phillies also showed interest in Upton, but clearly did not value him as highly. That’s notable — when the Phils want a player, they usually strike quickly. But they evidently don’t view any of the free-agent center fielders as worthy of an aggressive play. They’re also trying to make other moves, including a trade for Astros reliever Wilton Lopez.
Then there are the Washington Nationals, another NL East club that could move on a center fielder. The Nats could stick with Bryce Harper in center, particularly if they re-sign first baseman Adam LaRoche and keep Michael Morse in left. They’ve got a center-field prospect, Brian Goodwin, who showed promise in the Arizona Fall League. But rival executives suspect that if Bourn lingers on the market, the Nats again might strike a deal with Boras, with whom they enjoy a strong relationship.
Time will tell which of the three NL East powers made the best decision in center field, but the Braves had no interest in waiting.
Their first choice was their best choice, regardless of whether Upton elevates his game or remains the player he was in Tampa Bay.
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