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Braves take gamble with Upton

11/29/2012

On Aug. 10 of the 2012 season, B.J. Upton had 10 homers, to go along with a .298 on-base percentage. At that trajectory, he was on pace for a season of 15 homers, 155 strikeouts, a .378 slugging percentage and 30 stolen bases. It wasn't long after that that a long-time general manager guessed that Upton's deal in free agency would be for about two years and $16 million, or possibly as much as $18 million.

But Upton smashed two homers on Aug. 11, in the Rays' 112th game, and over Tampa Bay's last 50 games he clubbed 18 homers. There's no way of knowing precisely what that burst of power did for Upton's value in the market, but it's probably safe to say that the rush of offense seemed to help significantly.

And by Thursday evening, we should see Upton standing on a podium, wearing a Braves jersey, having made the deal of a lifetime -- five years, $75.25 million, with the help of his highly respected agent, Larry Reynolds. Upton was the youngest of the center fielders on the market, at age 28, and the Braves stay young with this. Their lineup could look something like this by mid-May, after Brian McCann comes back from shoulder surgery:

POS Player (Age)

CF B.J. Upton (28)

3B Martin Prado (29)

RF Jason Heyward (23)

1B Freddie Freeman (23)

2B Dan Uggla (32)

C Brian McCann (29)

LF ?

SS Andrelton Simmons (23)

The Braves had the best defensive center fielder in the majors in Michael Bourn, and Upton has been viewed as a plus at his position, as well, something you need in spacious Turner Field.

Atlanta signed Upton to the biggest free-agent contract in its history in spite of a lot of numbers and concerns that have been red-flagged in other organizations.

1. His declining on-base percentage, which has dropped almost 100 points over the past six seasons.

2007: .386

2008: .383

2009: .313

2010: .322

2011: .331

2012: .298

2. The strikeouts. Upton has racked up 934 over his past six seasons, in part because of his acute struggles against power pitchers. If you use the definition provided by Baseball-reference.com -- the top third of the pitchers in the league in strikeouts plus walks -- Upton hit .168 against power pitchers last year, with no homers in 121 plate appearances. After Wednesday's signing, rival evaluators mused over Fredi Gonzalez's challenge of trying to place Dan Uggla and Upton in the same lineup, given that Uggla is a very similar hitter to Upton -- streaky, with a lot of strikeouts.

3. His declining defensive metrics. There is no perfect measure of defense, but FanGraph's UZR/150 evaluation of Upton is right in line with more advanced metrics used by individual teams.

2007: 7.0

2008: 8.4

2009: 7.5

2010: 1.9

2011: 1.6

2012: -3.2

To repeat: Defensive metrics are tricky, and it may well be that the Braves had a much stronger evaluation of Upton.

4. The peaks and the valleys. His offense comes in bursts, and rival scouts have thought for years that Upton tends to get down on himself.
In recent years, the Rays were open to listening to offers for Upton, as he got more expensive, and no team -- not the Braves, not some other club -- aggressively moved on him.

This whopper investment by Atlanta seems incongruous with how the industry has viewed Upton in recent seasons, and you wonder if the Braves might've been better off chasing Chris Young -- who was acquired by Oakland from Arizona a few weeks ago -- in a deal earlier this offseason. His age (29) and production has been very similar to that of Upton, he's regarded as a better defensive outfielder, and -- most important -- he's owed only $10 million over the next year, with an $8.5 million salary in 2013 and a $1.5 million buyout on an $11 million option for 2014. The Braves probably would have been better off overpaying in a trade for Young rather than assuming the risk of the massive deal with Upton.

But the opinions on Upton are scattered, and an NL evaluator offered a different perspective.

"He is the most talented player in the free-agent market and somebody I think will age well," the evaluator said. "He is continuing to improve. Most free-agent signings pay players for what they have done, but when you sign Upton, it's about what he will do.

"On top of that, things in the market are changing. Jonny Gomes just got a multiyear deal with an average annual value of $5 million, while setup guys like Brandon League and Jeremy
Affeldt are getting paid between $6-8 million per year. Baseball just signed a new labor deal last year and got a lot of TV money this year. There was value in the Braves' striking early, before the market really took hold, because some of these contracts may get out of hand."

The Braves don't have a lot of outfield depth in their farm system, and they will now look to fill their left field position. Dexter Fowler could be an option as a trade target, just as Denard Span could be. They also could look to sign Shane Victorino, writes David O'Brien, although it's hard to imagine that Victorino will get anything less than three years and $27 million, given the financial shift in the sport.

Upton's Twitter account had an avatar change -- to a Braves logo, as Marc Topkin writes.

• The dominoes from the Upton signing will naturally fall toward Philadelphia now, because the Phillies were in on Upton. Now their options have shrunk, and given Upton's deal, Michael Bourn has a stronger position to ask for more, and Angel Pagan can reasonably expect a four-year deal for something in the range of $45 million to $50 million. Victorino is still on the market, as is Josh Hamilton.

The Phillies' search continues, writes Bob Brookover. Upton's signing may be a blessing in disguise for the Phillies, writes David Murphy.

New York moves

• Yankees GM Brian Cashman met with Andy Pettitte's agent at the GM meetings a few weeks ago, and Jim Murray told Cashman then that he had an inkling that Pettitte would come back for another season. The conversations about a 2013 contract started then, Murray recalled. "The feeling was, 'look, let's be prepared, let's get something in place,' " Murray said. "We worked on it between then and now, talking fairly frequently."

But what Murray did not do, for weeks, was to press Pettitte for an answer on whether he wanted to pitch in 2013. When Pettitte was ready, Murray had a sense of the deal he could get from the Yankees.

"Andy was like, 'Let's do this,' " said Murray. "If Andy's not 100 percent committed to doing something, he's not going to do it."

Pettitte is getting a substantial raise over last year.

• The Mets are waiting to hear from David Wright on their $140 million offer, writes Andy Martino, and in chatting to a number of agents and officials who aren't involved in these talks, I found them unanimous in this thought: Wright will take this offer. "How can he turn it down?" said one agent. "There's no guarantee that he'll get that a year from now."

It is completely within Wright's power to look for a better chance to win, given the Mets' troubles, and if he turned down the offer and veered toward free agency, you couldn't blame him. But the name I kept thinking about, after hearing about the enormous offer to Wright, was Juan Gonzalez. He famously turned down a $151.5 million overture from the Detroit Tigers when he was exactly the same age as Wright, 29, and then never got anything close to that after an injury-plagued season -- a decision that cost him about $100 million.

• The Pirates are going after Russell Martin. But if there's not much difference between the bids of Pittsburgh and the Yankees, the choice will be simple for him.

Moves, deals and decisions

1. Carl Pavano would like to return to the Miami Marlins, as Joe Capozzi writes.

2. The Texas Rangers traded for a reliever.

3. David Glass is willing to increase the Kansas City Royals' payroll. Here's a breakdown of the Royals' payroll, from Bob Dutton.

4. The Cincinnati Reds will have an innings limit for Aroldis Chapman.

5. The Cleveland Indians moved to cut Rafael Perez.

6. The Pirates made some trades.

7. The Boston Red Sox raided the Yankees' staff for a coach.

8. The Orioles are interested in bringing back Koji Uehara. The O's traded for Danny Valencia.

9. The Red Sox could build their next great team if they deal Jon Lester for Wil Myers, writes Brian MacPherson. Wrote here yesterday about Brian Wilson as an interesting possibility for the Red Sox. Scott Lauber has more here, but to be clear: As of now, it appears that Andrew Bailey is in line to be the Boston closer.

10. The Washington Nationals are weighing their options for their spring training home.

11. Adam LaRoche's negotiations with the Nationals have gone slowly.

12. The Oakland Athletics signed Pat Neshek.

13. The Los Angels Angels finalized their deal with Ryan Madson.

Other stuff

• Marvin Miller wound up at odds with the union on one issue.

By the way: Hearing more and more from players and executives about what they perceive to be a growing use of performance-enhancing drugs -- testosterone and human growth hormone. If the union isn't careful, it's going to be 1999 all over again.

There is more testing on the way, says Michael Weiner.

• The Jays are wary of Jose Bautista playing in the WBC.

• Jack Morris might finally be a Hall of Famer, writes Tony Paul. Michael Silverman is voting for Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, but maybe not for Sammy Sosa and Mike Piazza.

Bernie Miklasz doesn't want to hear sermons from writers.

Ryan Zimmerman acknowledged that his throwing was affected by his shoulder injury.

• An ex-Oriole was indicted.

And today will be better than yesterday.