Two rival executives smell a rat in the Phillies’ pursuit of free-agent center fielder B.J. Upton.
Well, maybe not a rat, but a pair of embedded ex-Rays officials who know Upton quite well recently assumed prominent positions with the Phils.
Bart Braun, previously a special assignment scout with the Rays, joined the Phillies last month as a special assistant to general manager Ruben Amaro Jr.
Steve Henderson, the Rays’ hitting coach from 2006 to ’09, will fill the same role for the Phillies after spending the past three years with the club as a minor-league coordinator.
The moves did not go unnoticed by the Upton camp, and in the words of one player agent, “there are no coincidences in baseball.”
But Amaro Jr., while acknowledging the Phillies’ interest in Upton, said that nothing unusual is afoot.
“My understanding is that yes, B.J. has or had a relationship with Hendu,” Amaro said. “Obviously, Bart has been with Tampa Bay for a long time. But that doesn’t mean that B.J. is going to be a Philadelphia Phillie by any stretch of the imagination.
“The reason we got those guys has nothing to do with B.J. We thought they were the right guys for the organization, that both would make us better. One had nothing to do with the other.”
Perhaps the bigger question for the Phillies is how their off-season will unfold.
Amaro said the team’s needs include a center fielder, a corner outfielder, a third baseman and bullpen help. But unlike in some previous years, the GM does not expect to be active early in free agency.
The Phils jumped the market to sign closer Jonathan Papelbon on Nov. 18, 2011, reliever Jose Contreras on Nov. 16, 2010 and infielder Placido Polanco on Dec. 3, 2009.
“I don’t see us doing anything very quick, I really don’t,” Amaro said. “I don’t know how all this is going to play out. There are a lot of moving parts for us, different pieces of the puzzle. We’re taking a really, really broad look at this thing.
“There are a lot of things to look at. I’m not sure we can add four or five of those things. We’re just trying to make the team better in certain areas, not necessarily all of those areas.”
THE BOURN IDENTITY: A BIT OF A PUZZLE
At least one GM believes that Upton will get more attention on the market than Bourn, pointing out that Upton, 28, is nearly two years younger and hits for more power.
Bourn is perceived as the superior on-base threat, but his career .339 OBP is not much higher than Upton’s .336 (though Upton’s OBP last season was a career-low .298).
Two other aspects of Bourn’s offensive game are disturbing: His high strikeout totals as a leadoff hitter, and his second-half declines.
Bourn struck out a career-high 155 times last season, tying for seventh most in the NL, and has averaged 136 strikeouts the past four years.
He also batted .225 with a .636 OPS after the All-Star Game in 2012, and his post-All Star OPS the past four years is just .695.
All that said, Bourn is best appreciated when his game is viewed as a whole.
He ranked as the top center fielder in the majors last season according to the plus-minus ratings on Bill James Online (the system actually rated Upton as a minus overall). Bourn also adds value on the basepaths, both as a base stealer and as a runner taking extra bases.
Put it all together, and Bourn ranked 13th in the majors with 6.4 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) last season.
Upton ranked 61st with 3.3 WAR.
MORSE ON THE MOVE?
The Nationals’ off-season hinges on whether they re-sign free-agent first baseman Adam LaRoche.
If they do, left fielder Mike Morse could be their odd man out.
A number of teams covet Morse’s power, and he is affordable at $6.75 million next season before becoming a free agent.
On the other hand, the Nats could move Morse to first if they lose LaRoche, then pursue a free-agent center fielder such as Bourn or Upton.
An outfield of Jayson Werth in right, Bourn or Upton in center and Bryce Harper in left would be quite intriguing. But hold on.
Rather than sign a free agent, the Nats might prefer to wait for Brian Goodwin, their top center-field prospect.
Goodwin, 22, struggled offensively last season after his promotion from Single A to Double A, but since has gotten off to an outstanding start in the Arizona Fall League.
As for LaRoche, the Nationals to this point have been reluctant to offer him more than two years, according to major-league sources.
A longer deal would preclude them from eventually moving Ryan Zimmerman to first once top prospect Anthony Rendon is ready at third.
TRADE ETHIER? WHY?
It’s clear that the Dodgers’ new ownership does not abide by conventional wisdom. But trading right fielder Andre Ethier less than six months after signing him to a five-year, $85 million contract extension would be theater of the absurd.
Various media reports say the Dodgers would consider such a move, but team officials privately insist otherwise. Yes, trading Ethier would open a spot for free-agent outfielder Josh Hamilton. But if that was the Dodgers’ motivation, why did they commit to Ethier in the first place?
Ethier’s extension, which was announced last June 12, starts next season and runs through 2017. It could grow to six years, $100 million if Ethier collects enough plate appearances to guarantee his option for ‘18.
Ethier, 30, might not get such a deal on the open market today; the Dodgers likely would need to pay part of his contract to get a better return in a trade. Then they would need to pay Hamilton some astronomical sum to replace Ethier, and such a move would come with its own risks.
What is so bad about Ethier, anyway?
His biggest negative — his inability to consistently hit left-handed pitching — is nothing new.
In 2009, when Ethier produced career-highs with 31 homers and 106 RBIs, he batted .194 with a .629 OPS against left-handers.
Last season, he had 20 homers and 89 RBIs and batted .222 with a .606 OPS against lefties.
The flip side?
He led the NL with a .945 OPS against righties.
Ethier is what he is. And that’s pretty good.
AROUND THE HORN
*The Cardinals are open to trading second baseman Skip Schumaker, who is under contract for $1.5 million next season.
Schumaker no longer has a place on the club; Daniel Descalso got most of the playing time at second late in the season, and Kolten Wong is the team’s second baseman of the future.
*The Yankees, who want to re-sign Russell Martin, long have had interest in another free-agent catcher, David Ross.
It seems unlikely the Yankees would sign both; Chris Stewart and Francisco Cervelli are potential backups, and Austin Romine currently is playing in the Arizona Fall League.
*Don’t be surprised to hear the names of virtually every Indian in trade discussions this off-season. Club officials plan to gauge the market thoroughly, much as the Rays and other teams often do with their players.
The most likely Indians to be dealt: Right fielder Shin-Soo Choo, closer Chris Perez, shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera.
*The Diamondbacks could add a veteran starter, a pitcher who would make a strong part of the club even stronger, the way free agent Jason Kubel did with the team’s outfield last season.
Another priority for the D-Backs is a late-inning lefty. Sean Burnett, Mike Gonzalez, Randy Choate, Jeremy Affeldt and J.P. Howell are among the available free agents.