The Atlanta Braves could have chosen to retain Michael Bourn as their center fielder for the 2013 season and beyond, but they've decided to move forward with B.J. Upton instead. In doing so, they're rolling the dice in a pretty big way. Their signing of Upton is very much a classic "hold on to your butts" signing.
But first things first. Upton has indeed signed with the Braves on Wednesday for five years and $75.25 million, according to FoxSports.com. This means the Braves just gave Upton a deal worth roughly $25 million more than the extension Andrew McCutchen recently signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates. His deal is also worth more annually than the extension Adam Jones recently signed with the Baltimore Orioles.
I'm guessing that you, dear reader, watch plenty of baseball. In which case, I'm also guessing that you have mixed feelings about the Upton signing. As do I. Upton has worlds upon worlds of talent, and he's still young by baseball standards at 28 years old, but he has a frustrating knack for leaving everyone wanting more. He may be the baseball equivalent of Jay Cutler.
For all his talent, Upton has a career slash line of .255/.336/.422. In the last four years, however, he's compiled a slash line of .242/.316/.420, and he's coming off a season in which he posted a career-low .298 on-base percentage.
Among major league center fielders, Upton tied for 11th in the league with Shane Victorino in WAR, according to FanGraphs. This would be the same Shane Victorino who posted a .704 OPS and is going to be lucky to get anything even remotely close to a $75 million contract in free agency this year.
As for Bourn, he has a career slash line of .272/.339/.365 and he's coming off a year in which he posted a slash line of .274/.348/.391. He stole over 40 bases for the fifth straight year, and set a new career high with nine home runs.
In going from Bourn to Upton, the Braves are definitely gaining some power. Bourn showed off some more pop in 2012, but he doesn't have 25- or even 30-homer potential like Upton does. They're also getting a right-handed bat, which they needed.
The trade-off is that the Braves are clearly losing some on-base prowess, not to mention a true leadoff man and an elite center fielder. Per FanGraphs, Bourn led all major league center fielders in both UZR and DRS in 2012. The Gold Glove that went to Andrew McCutchen should have gone to him in a landslide.
Upton, meanwhile, rated as a below-average defensive center fielder. For the last three years in general, his defense has been trending backward rather than forward. He's got plenty of range in the outfield, but the stats say he's not as smooth as he looks.
If we look at the big picture in terms of fWAR, the Braves are taking a big step back in going from Bourn to Upton. Bourn ranked third among center fielders in WAR at 6.4, meaning he was worth three more wins than Upton in 2012.
This is par for the course. Dating back to 2009, the only year in which Bourn didn't post a higher fWAR than Upton was in 2011. They both posted an fWAR of 4.1 that season.
It may not have cost the Braves that much more money to retain Bourn instead. Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com reported earlier this month that Bourn's price tag was likely worth $80 million over five years. Conceivably, the Braves could have retained him for just $5 million more than they've agreed to pay Upton.
So...What gives? Well, this is clearly a case of the Braves not necessarily perceiving Upton as a player who is better than Bourn, but as a player who will be better than Bourn.
It's great that Bourn showed off a little more power in 2012, but his game is based almost entirely around his speed. He's one of the fastest players in the majors, and his speed helps him boost his overall value on the basepaths and in the outfield.
The problem with speed is that it's not eternal, and Bourn's getting to be a little older with his 30th birthday set to pass by in December. If he slows down with age, it stands to reason that he'll lose both his stolen base prowess and his impressive defensive range. In that case, he'd cease to be Michael Bourn and become—worst-case scenario—Chone Figgins.
The Braves are gambling on the notion that the younger Upton's power will age better than Bourn's speed, which is by no means a foolish notion. Upton hit a career-high 28 home runs in 2012, and his home run total has been on the rise ever since he managed just 20 in 2008 and 2009.
In theory, Upton will be able to keep his legs fresher in the long run if his power continues to increase, in which case he may still have 30-30 potential a few years down the road. This is where gambling on Upton is smart, but his big contract obviously isn't foolproof.
Upton's power may be on the way up, but his plate discipline is staying the course. Per FanGraphs, Upton's walk rate took a dive in 2012 after hanging steady at around 11 percent in 2010 and 2011, and his strikeout rate climbed to 26.7 percent. His swinging-strike percentage reached a new career high, and he also swung at more pitches outside the strike zone than ever before.
The Braves are going to have to live with a big pile of strikeouts from Upton on an annual basis. His career K rate is 25.1 percent, and he hasn't deviated from that mark all that much in the last four seasons.
There's little that suggests that Upton's plate discipline is going to get better, in which case his on-base potential is going to have a constant cap on it. I also wouldn't anticipate seeing a big spike in BABIP, as Upton hasn't strayed far from the .300 mark in any of the last four seasons.
There is no middle ground regarding Upton's new contract. He's either going to make good on his potential and make his roughly $15 million annual salary look like an absolute steal, or he's going to keep on as he's been keeping on and continue to disappoint.
Considering the circumstances and the dollars at play, there's no way the Braves could have made a decidedly "safe" signing in picking either Bourn or Upton for a five-year contract. Signing Bourn would have meant signing a player who's good now but may not be good later. Signing Upton meant signing a player who's not so good now but may be really good later.
Assuming the two players could have been had for a similar amount of money, I would have chosen Bourn over Upton if I was Frank Wren. Speed may not age well, but 'tis better to spend on production you know is going to be there rather than on production you're merely hoping is going to be there both in the short and long term.
But I sincerely wish the Braves luck with Upton, and I sincerely hope that Wren didn't make his choice by picking Upton's name out of a hat.
Oh, and you can rest assured that Bourn isn't complaining about being snubbed by the Braves. He ought to do well now that Upton's contract has set the market.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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