Braves fill needs by adding free-agent Upton

The Braves wasted little time in making a statement in free agency.

Atlanta
has reportedly agreed to a five-year $75.25 million deal with center
fielder B.J. Upton, marking the largest free-agent contract in the
franchise’s history.

Upton, 28, had spent his entire major-league
career with the Rays. Last season he hit .246 with a career-high 28
home runs, 78 RBIs and 31 stolen bases.

The signing, which is pending a physical, fills two big needs for the Braves.

Looking
to add more right-handed power in their lineup they got it with a
player who averaged 23 homers in each of the last three seasons,
including 19 from Aug. 1 through the end of the season, which tied for
the most in the majors. They also made up for the all but certain
departure of Michael Bourn, who became a free agent.

If there’s
are any negatives with Upton it’s his plate discipline and his fit. He
struck out 169 times last season, his third straight with at least 161
Ks. He also doesn’t fit the classic lead-off hitter role, like Bourn,
who had 64 steals in 208 games in a Braves uniform. That’s something
Atlanta may have to address in free agency or try and find someone on
the roster to mold into that position, with Martin Prado or Andrelton
Simmons as possibilities.

But ultimately Upton is younger than
the 30-year-old Bourn and a mix of power and speed Bourn can’t match –
he hit a career-best nine homers last season – with the Brewers’ Ryan
Braun and Angels’ Mike Trout standing as the only players with as many
steals and homers as Upton had last season. He’s been on a steady
incline each of the past three seasons, going from 18 home runs in 2010
to 23 in ’11 and then the 28 this last season and also adds balance to a
lineup that was heavy on left-handed hitters.

Upton, who is one
of eight players to reach 100 homers and 200 steals before turning 28,
was one of the biggest center fielders on the open season in a group
that includes All-Stars Bourn, Josh Hamilton and Shane Victorinio.

From a monetary standpoint it’s a bold move for the Braves.

General
manager Frank Wren had said the team was unlikely to overspend in free
agency. Instead he gave Upton, who earlier this month had turned down a
one-year, $13.3 million
guaranteed offer from the Rays, a deal that
beats out Derek Lowe’s $60 million in 2008 as the team’s largest
free-agent contract ever.

Power in center field has been missing
since Andruw Jones left in 2008, with the Braves hitting just 44 home
runs. In that same span, Upton has hit 89 HRs.

Now the Braves
possess a potent combination of power and speed in Upton and 23 year old
Gold Glove-winning right fielder Jason Heyward, who last year hit 27
homers with 21 steals.

Given the Braves’ needs and what Upton
brings to the lineup, he looks to be an upgrade, even at an historic
amount for the franchise.