Free-agent matchmaker: B.J. Upton


Where will the 28-year-old four-tool player land? Let's guess the likely team and search for the ideal fit at the same time.

There are a lot of free-agent center fielders. B.J. Upton, Shane Victorino, Angel Pagan, Michael Bourn, and Josh Hamilton are all available, and while that means it's something of a buyer's market, it also means there are a lot of teams who are looking for a center fielder.

Of the five, though, one stands out as being a little different. Well, they all have something different, I suppose. Josh Hamilton is a former MVP, Michael Bourn is a Gold Glover, Angel Pagan is a switch-hitter, and Shane Victorino is a sub-human soul-drinker. But those four are also linked because they will all be over 30 before the 2012 season starts.

B.J. Upton is still just 28. A four-year deal would take him through what should be the rest of his prime years, and when he gets out the other side, he won't be much older than Victorino is now. Upton can steal bases, and according to UZR, he's anywhere from a decent-to-fantastic defender in center. He also mashed a career-high 28 home runs last season, playing in a pitchers' park.

The confusing story of B.J. Upton is best told in tables:

Year Age BA OBP
2009 24 .241 .313
2010 25 .237 .322
2011 26 .243 .331
2012 27 .246 .298

Well, say. That's not good.

Tropicana Field park factors
(Under 100 indicates pitchers' park)

2009: 100
2010: 92
2011: 92
2012: 95

Oh. That explains a lot of that. Well, I'm sold. I think …

Year Baseball-Reference WAR FanGraphs WAR
2009 0.8 2.4
2010 1.0 4.1
2011 2.8 4.1
2012 2.6 3.3

Wait. There are some substantial differences there.

% of swings
out of the strike zone
% of total swings
2009 21.9 42.6
2010 24.9 45.4
2011 26.0 46.5
2012 30.2 51.4

Say, that's not a good trend.

So what you have is a power hitter (good) who might be below-average in the field (bad) unless he's above-average (good), who is chasing more and more balls out of the strike zone (bad), but might be underrated because of his home park (good), so he's either a somewhat mediocre player when you look at his WAR (bad), or he's a pretty good center fielder when you examine his WAR (good).

Seems like a pretty simple case, here. Upton is good unless he isn't, and he deserves to get paid like a burgeoning star unless he doesn't.

A team will take a chance. And there will be another team that will want to take the chance, and they'll help raise Upton's price. A look at the favorite and the team he should go to.

The Favorite

It would need to be a team that might be a little more apt to use statistics than the average team, as the case for Upton's value relies on adjusted numbers. The on-base percentages aren't pretty, and the declining strikeout-to-walk ratio is scary, so a team would have to count on stellar defense and the idea that Tropicana Field was stifling Upton's raw numbers. You're probably not going to see a big push from the White Sox, Twins, or Giants, for example.

Give me the Rangers, then, as a team that's both a) looking for a center fielder, and b) attractive to a young player like Upton who might have another big contract to play for in his career. Over the last three years, Upton has had a 110 OPS+. You know what a 110 OPS+ looks like for a player who plays half his games in Arlington? It can be a high-OBP guy (Ian Kinsler, .286/.382/.412 in 2010), a raw-power guy (Nelson Cruz, .263/.312/.509 in 2011), or a low-average slugger (Mike Napoli, .227/.343/.469 in 2012). All of those raw numbers would make Upton look better. And they would bring shiny, shiny RBIs with them.

I'm not sure how to quantify Upton's defense, but I'm pretty sure it's better than Josh Hamilton's.

The Ideal

Tempted to go with the Astros here. A rebuilding team doesn't have to avoid free-agent talent, especially when it's youngish talent. When the Astros are ready to contend in two or three years, it would be a boon to have an up-the-middle position secured, and it's not like they have a lot of money committed to the roster right now.

Instead, I'm going to go with the Giants. Because I have to watch that team at least 162 times, and I'm emaciated from the lack of dinger-nourishment. The out-of-zone numbers up there give me the jibblies, and it could signal a steep decline, but Upton hits dingers. The Giants hit 103 home runs last year -- just 31 of them at home. Josh Hamilton hit 22 homers at home. The Giants had nine more home round-trippers than Hamilton.

The Giants can't (or don't want to) afford Hamilton, so if they're looking for power, there aren't a lot of options on the free-agent market. If they're like me, and they want brainless dingers even if they come with a substantial risk, Upton is just about their only option. As a bonus, Upton can steal bases, too. Small ball!

Begrudging prediction

Rangers, four years, $50 million. Bowden says 5/$70 million, and I'm loath to go against his wizardry, but I can't see teams being that convinced by his expected production.

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