The Braves wasted little time in making a statement in free agency.
Atlanta signed B.J. Upton to a five-year, $75.25 million deal, making the center fielder the highest paid player in franchise 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.
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“I’m excited and looking forward to a lot of championship seasons,” Upton said in his introductory press conference Thursday. “This is my new home now, and this is where I will be dedicated to for the next five years.”
The signing 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 the void signing him creates atop the lineup.
Upton 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 will likely 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.
“We are thrilled to add B.J. Upton to our club,” Braves General Manager Frank Wren said. “B.J. is an outstanding defensive player who also adds the power dimension to our offense from the center field position. We have been working to increase the speed and athleticism across our team and B.J. gives us another young, dynamic player.”
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.
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.
Home run production in center field has been missing since Andruw Jones left in 2008, with the Braves hitting just 44 HRs. In that same span, Upton has hit 89.
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 overall, he looks to be an upgrade, even at an historic amount for the franchise.