Ideally, the Atlanta Braves would re-sign center fielder Michael Bourn. The lineup needs a leadoff hitter, and Bourn also plays outstanding defense at his position.
But the Braves are ready to concede that Bourn—advised by agent Scott Boras—will likely find a richer offer elsewhere. Increasing the sting is that Bourn could end up with an NL East rival, as the Washington Nationals and Philadelphia Phillies are among the teams pursuing him.
However, even if Atlanta brought back Bourn, the team would still have a need for a right-handed bat. Braves general manager Frank Wren looked for one last season as well, dangling Martin Prado and Jair Jurrjens around MLB. Unfortunately, the best available player turned out to be Delmon Young, so Wren decided he was better off keeping Prado.
This year, one player is available who can not only provide a right-handed power bat for the Braves, but can also be a suitable replacement for Bourn in center field. B.J. Upton can fill both roles in Atlanta, and as MLB.com's Mark Bowman reports, he is the Braves' top free-agent target.
Upton hit 28 home runs for the Tampa Bay Rays this season, which would have been the leading total on the Braves' roster (Jason Heyward led Atlanta with 27 homers). But that was a career-high figure for Upton, and he might not repeat that performance.
However, he did hit 23 in 2011, so let's average it out and say he's good for 25 home runs next year. Of course, he could slug 30 homers, as he'll likely see better pitches in the Braves' lineup with Heyward or Freddie Freeman probably batting behind him.
Upton could also help replace the speed that Bourn provided at the top of the Braves' lineup. Bourn stole 42 bases this season, which was actually his lowest total in the past four seasons. Upton isn't that sort of speedster, but he did have 31 stolen bases this year and 36 in 2011.
However, making contact and getting on base are not among Upton's strengths. This year, he hit .246. His on-base percentage was .298, which is comically bad. That's not what you want at the top of the order with the big bats coming up.
Was this a one-year aberration for Upton? Well, he's a career .255 hitter, so it appears not. But he does have a .336 on-base percentage during his eight major league seasons, which indicates he can get on base. Upton even drew 97 walks in 2008.
But he drew only 45 walks this season, the lowest total of his career. His 169 strikeouts were also a career-high mark. Upton may have been trying to hit for more power in his final season before becoming a free agent, and his overall game suffered as a result.
So Upton might be better suited for hitting lower in the order, perhaps sixth behind Freeman. Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez prefers a right-handed bat between Heyward and Freeman, so Dan Uggla could bat fourth.
Interestingly, Atlanta was reportedly looking at another right-hander far better suited for the No. 2 spot. Bowman reported that the Braves initially had hopes of nabbing outfielder Torii Hunter in addition to Upton, which would have been an excellent haul for Wren. But Hunter signed with the Detroit Tigers on Wednesday (Nov. 14), squashing those ambitions.
The Braves also need Upton to replace Bourn's defense in center field. However, comparing any center fielder to Bourn this season is probably unfair, since he was an elite defensive player.
According to FanGraphs' Ultimate Zone Rating, Bourn saved 22 more runs than the average player at his position this season. He was also credited with 24 defensive runs saved, the highest total among MLB center fielders. The next best was eight runs better than a replacement-level player in center.
It's worth pointing out that Upton benefited in Tampa Bay from having Desmond Jennings next to him in left field and Ben Zobrist in right. In Atlanta, Heyward and Prado had excellent years in the corner outfield spots.
But Prado will likely move to third base with the retirement of Chipper Jones. So if the Braves don't find a suitable replacement in left field, Upton may have to shoulder more of a defensive load.
As a leadoff batter and center fielder, Upton isn't as good a player as Bourn. But very few can match Bourn in those two roles.
As a hitter, however, Upton has to replace Bourn's .274 average and .739 OPS. He's capable of doing that. He also brings a power bat, run production and versatility to the Braves' lineup that Bourn couldn't provide.
While he may not be the defensive player Bourn is, Upton is above average at his position and should give the Braves what they need.
Upton would be a nice fit with the Braves. Even better for them, he fills two needs on the roster, which increases his value to Atlanta. That allows Wren to sign another player for left field, if necessary (Scott Hairston could be a player worth pursuing). With Bourn, the team would still be lacking a right-handed bat.
So is Upton an upgrade over Bourn? That could be the wrong question to ask.
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