One year ago yesterday, the Braves signed B.J. Upton to a franchise record free agent deal of 5 years/$75.25MM. What followed, of course, was one more forgettable seasons a Brave has ever turned in. Upton hit just .184/.268/.289 while registering a -0.6 fWAR, and it’s easy to join the horde of Braves fans cursing his name, but I’m not here to do that. I’m here to do something not many people are willing to do; defend the signing.
The Braves are more than known for their rich surplus of good young pitching, but have never been quite known for their development of outfielder over the past decade or so, outside of Jason Heyward and the rise and fall of Jeff Francoeur. At this time last year, the Braves center field depth chart included glorified AAAA player Jose Constanza and a recent waiver claim of their own former failed outfield prospect Jordan Schafer. The Braves needed a center fielder in the worst way.
One year ago, the free agent market was full of good, but not elite center field options. With Michael Bourn and agent Scott Boras asking for a $100MM contract, the Braves turned in pursuit of a player who would give them a little bit more bang for their buck. A lot of fans, me included, were very high on Michael Bourn. He was the first true leadoff hitter the team had employed since the days of Rafael Furcal, and with his skill set, you were banking on at least 40 stolen bases and elite defense in center field. The problem was spelled out above. Although he may have fallen a lot short of the asking price I mentioned above, the Braves needed to lock up a center fielder, and likely couldn’t afford to wait into the new year, and were more inclined to pay the younger and better offensive option in Upton. With Bourn already regressing in Cleveland last year, and the notorious rapid rate that players dependent on speed decline after 30, the Braves weren’t exactly wrong to not play ball with Boras.
The Braves had no more than little interest in Shane Victorino, who was coming off of a down season and heading further towards the wrong side of 30. Victorino of course secured a very good 3 year/$39MM deal with the eventual World Series winning Red Sox.
Angel Pagan was an interesting option, and one the Braves seemed likely to make for a while. But he shared a lot of similarities with Victorino, and when it was apparent he would not sign for anything less than 4 years, the Braves decided to turn to a younger option with much more upside.
B.J. Upton has always been a puzzling player. Once an on base and average machine, he had been trending upwards in the power department, at the expense of that on base percentage, for years.
In his career high 28 homer 2012 campaign, Upton got on base at just a .289 clip, but continued to provide solid defense(the only season which he has registered a negative UZR) and 31 steals, good for a 3.1 fWAR. At the time, that was his worst year. With a single WAR costing roughly $5MM, the deal was market value in these terms, and although Upton was coming off of a down season, it was to be believed this was an aberration.
With numbers like those, this bad of a decline in one year was nowhere near predictable. Some could take away that an increased walk rate may be a positive sign for the future. A friend of mine tackled a couple of other positive things to hold on to when predicting Upton’s future performance a while back, if you’d like to dive further into the numbers.
At just 28 years old, B.J. Upton was not only the youngest center field option, but arguably the most dynamic and most worthy of a 5 year deal. Hindsight is in fact 20/20; not a single person could have predicted how far Upton would fall, and no one should be blaming the Braves for spending money on him one season, and not spending on Tim Hudson or Brian McCann the next. The Braves needed a center fielder and made the best available move to improve their club. Time will tell if Upton can regain some form and put up another 3 win season, but with 4 years left, the best thing Braves fans can do now is hope.