If the Texas Rangers allow Josh Hamilton to walk this offseason, as I expect they will, they must find a replacement for him in center field. With no obvious answers in their minor league system, pursuing B.J. Upton in free agency makes a lot of sense.
Last month, MLB.com’s T.R. Sullivan reported the Rangers were indeed interested in Upton. It’s still early in the free-agent process, so it could be a while before serious bidders emerge and indicate what kind of money will be needed to get a deal done.
Upton’s defense would be a major upgrade over Hamilton. His speed allows him to patrol vast stretches of ground, which would greatly assist Nelson Cruz, the pillar of salt who currently plays right field in Arlington.
CBS-DFW indicates that the Rangers would prefer to have Upton play a corner spot, which makes little sense. No other player on the current roster approaches the 28-year-old’s range.
Upton is also the bat who would best mitigate the loss of Hamilton, as his speed and raw power have traditionally played well at Rangers Ballpark, where he has a career .331 batting average and .987 OPS in 31 games.
Often forced to bat near the top of the lineup in Tampa, Upton could be inserted in the bottom of the Texas order, which is a much more natural fit for him and his free-swinging ways. During his career, he has hit a combined .269 when hitting in the seventh through ninth spots; and .252 anywhere else.
Detractors will wrongly point to Upton’s propensity to strike out (169 in 573 at-bats in 2012) as a reason to bypass signing him. However, Josh Hamilton struck out 162 times this past season, and Michael Bourn—the other marquee free-agent center fielder—whiffed 155 times, putting them in the same neighborhood.
Upton’s on-base percentage was a career-low .298 last season, but he’s no stranger to taking walks. He has drawn as many as 97 free passes in a season (2008), and there’s no reason why he can’t regain that selectivity.
Not being the man in Texas would allow him to take more pitches than he did with the Rays.
Some teams may be scared off from signing Upton because of the compensatory draft pick they would have to surrender now that Tampa made him a qualifying offer Saturday, according to the Tampa Bay Times’ Marc Topkin. With Baseball America recognizing Texas as having the best farm system in baseball, the Rangers could absorb losing that high draft pick better than most teams.
The financial cost to sign Upton will likely be a fraction of what it will take to retain Hamilton. Baseball Prospectus’ John Perrotto recently tweeted that Hamilton is seeking a new deal in the range of seven years and $175 million. Upton’s salary demands are unknown, but should be a great deal less than Hamilton’s final number.
Although Upton never became the star he was projected to be when he was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2002 draft, he is a very useful player who can thrive in the right environment. He often stuck out like a sore thumb in Tampa, where he was needed as a focal point of their anemic offense.
Texas has enough beef in their lineup to remove much of that pressure and allow him to concentrate on his game of speed, defensive range and 20-30 home runs per season.
The Rangers’ center field situation will become clearer in the coming weeks. With it looking increasingly likely that Hamilton will leave, fans should start preparing for a replacement, with B.J. Upton being the most sensible option.
Statistics via BaseballReference
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