Thursday, November 29, 2012

Braves Land Upton

Yesterday the Atlanta Braves made a splash by inking B.J. Upton to a five year deal worth $75.25 million, the largest free agent contract in the team's history.

Justin Upton's older brother will replace free agent Michael Bourn in center field. Bourn (now favored to sign with Philadelphia) is also seeking a five year deal but turns 30 next month, so Atlanta deemed him to be a riskier investment than Upton, who posted the worst OBP and walk rate of his career last year.

Bossman Junior has been something of an enigma throughout his major league career. He appeared to be on the path to superstardom after slugging 24 home runs, swiping 22 bases and batting .300/.386/.508 as a tender 22 year-old in 2007. But instead of making the leap like Matt Kemp and Andrew McCutchen have, Upton regressed and became a perennial disappointment. He clearly possesses all the tools, but has yet to put them together and probably never will.  To make matters worse, he's stubborn and immature with a history of clashing with management and teammates when they rightfully question his lack of effort and focus.

His mental approach has prevented him from realizing his abundant potential, and so the chasm between what he is and what grows wider with each frustrating season.  Since breaking out five years ago he's batted an underwhelming .248/.330/.416 while averaging 18 home runs and 69 RBI per year; hardly superstar production. The former second overall pick of the 2002 draft has been labeled as an underachiever, a gifted player content to coast on his abundant natural ability without putting in the hard work that could make him a franchise centerpiece.  Middling power numbers, massive strikeout totals and cringe-worthy batting averages have torpedoed what is supposed to be the prime of his career.  He's never been selected to an All-Star team, received a single MVP vote or taken home any hardware in the form of Silver Sluggers, Gold Gloves or World Series rings.  His amazing 2008 ALDS and ALCS teased us by providing a breathtaking glimpse of Upton's ability to get in the zone and take his game to unbelievable heights.

But he just doesn't reach them often enough.  He's maddeningly inconsistent, prone to lengthy slumps and constant headaches.  The Rays, clearly frustrated with his lack of progress and poor attitude, shopped him in the past. They were willing to part ways with him because he was more trouble than he was worth, and because they have the second coming of B.J. Upton in Desmond Jennings (a toolsy outfielder with a .248/.327/.406 career batting line)

Hopefully a change of scenery will do him some good.  Maybe he'll be more motivated and will try harder now that he plays in a city where fans actually show up to games every now and then. The move from pitcher-friendly Tropicana Field to the more neutral Turner Field should help boost his numbers a bit even though Upton's career home/road splits are identical. After all, he did post career highs with his 28 dingers (12 in September) and 260 total bases 2012. His home run totals have improved every year since 2008, jumping from nine to 28, which leads one to wonder if he can continue this trend and become a 30/30 player in 2013.

But is Upton a better investment than Bourn? I don't think so. Upton is two years younger, but over the past five seasons Bourn has been almost twice as valuable. Check it out:

Bourn 3,222 PAs  18.3 bWAR  .272/.338/.365   91 OPS+
Upton 3,149 PAs  10.3 bWAR  .248/.330/.416  104 OPS+

It's tough to compare the two because they're totally different players. Bourn is a leadoff (read: singles) hitter who relies on his blazing speed to wreak havoc on the basepaths. Upton is like Jason Heyward, a middle-of-the-order bat who balances power with speed. Upton's power (more home runs last year than Bourn has in his entire career) makes him a superior hitter, but Bourn is the better baserunner and defender.

But Bourn has reached his ceiling. He is coming off a season in which he set personal bests in bWAR, home runs, RBI, walks, slugging, and OPS. Atlanta's front office was worried that Bourn's speed, his most valuable asset, would diminish with age/that he would fall apart like Carl Crawford has. But plenty of speedsters have remained valuable into their thirties, from Rickey Henderson and Tim Raines to Ichiro Suzuki and Juan Pierre (a good comp for Bourn who just batted .307 in his age-34 season). I understand why GM Frank Wren shied away from Bourn and overpaid Upton instead. Upton is younger, adds more pop and provides a much-needed right-handed bat for a lineup loaded with southpaw mashers like Heyward, Freddie Freeman and Brian McCann  It probably won't make much of a difference either way, given how close the two players are in terms of value.

And if Upton ever figures it out and becomes the player he's capable of, this deal will look like quite a bargain five years from now.

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