Teams looking for a center fielder this offseason have some appealing options to choose from in free agency.
One of those teams will be the Atlanta Braves, who appear likely to lose Michael Bourn. He and agent Scott Boras seek a richer deal than the Braves will probably be willing to offer.
So the Braves need to find a replacement. Josh Hamilton isn't going to be an option. If Atlanta won't meet Bourn's price, they sure won't offer what Hamilton will seek on the open market. Besides, he's a left-handed hitter, and the Braves' lineup could really use a right-handed stick.
That could make B.J. Upton the best fit for Atlanta. He provides a right-handed power bat that also replaces some of the speed that Bourn is taking elsewhere.
Upton isn't the defensive center fielder that Bourn is. (No one is, according to FanGraphs' Ultimate Zone Rating.) But while he's not an elite defender at the position, he's above average.
That might be all he has to be in the Braves' outfield, with Gold Glove winner Jason Heyward patrolling right field. Martin Prado also had an excellent season defensively in left field, though he will probably move to third base to replace the retired Chipper Jones.
Atlanta general manager Frank Wren may be better off leaving Prado in left field and looking for a third baseman in free agency. Kevin Youkilis or Casey McGehee could be options at that position. Why mess with an outfield that helped provide one of the top team defenses in MLB this past season?
Even more important for the Braves might be what Upton adds to their lineup. He would be the right-handed bat that Wren couldn't add last offseason. Upton could hit 20 to 25 home runs with 80 RBI, batting between Heyward and Freddie Freeman.
Better yet, Upton could hit in the No. 2 spot and give the top of the order some speed. He doesn't profile as the speedster Bourn is, but Upton could steal around 40 bases. That would match Bourn's production on the basepaths this year.
Upton wouldn't be as good a fit for the leadoff spot in the batting order, however. Prado might be better suited for that role with a .359 on-base percentage that was better than any Braves starter except Jones.
The fear with Upton is that he could be another Dan Uggla, a hitter who strikes out way too much and hits for a low average. Even worse than Uggla, Upton doesn't get on base very much. His OBP of .298 is almost comically bad.
With that, Upton might be suited for lower in the lineup, maybe sixth behind Freeman. Shortstop Andrelton Simmons could be the No. 2 hitter under those circumstances. That would also allow the Braves to keep Brian McCann in the lower part of the batting order until he proves he can hit effectively again after offseason shoulder surgery.
Of course, money could be an issue depending on how much the Braves are willing to spend. Paying top dollar for a free agent hasn't been the team's way of doing business since Liberty Media took over ownership of the team.
But the Braves might have to open up the checkbook to get a quality center fielder, unless Wren can find one through trade—and the pickings look rather slim there.
If Upton is looking something in the range of a five-year, $70 million deal, as ESPN.com's Jerry Crasnick heard from an MLB executive in mid-September, then that might be too rich for the Braves' liking. With so many teams needing outfield help, the bidding might actually get that high.
However, if the market pushed Upton down to a three-year, $27 million deal or a four-year, $40 million package, that's a contract offer Atlanta should pursue.
Not only would Upton fill a key need on the Braves' roster, but signing him would have the bonus effect of keeping him from one—possibly two—division rivals.
The Philadelphia Phillies have just as great a need—if not greater—for a right-handed hitting center fielder than Atlanta does. They could really use someone to bat between Chase Utley and Ryan Howard.
The Washington Nationals could also go after a player at that position. But the emergence of Bryce Harper might have filled that hole in their lineup. Harper will almost certainly play center field if the Nats retain Adam LaRoche at first base.
Will the Braves be as good next year without Bourn as their center fielder? Perhaps not, because he was such an ideal fit as a leadoff hitter who could provide stellar defense. But Upton could be the next best thing, compensating with the right-handed power bat Bourn didn't have.
It's a good enough fit that the Braves should make a serious run at him.
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