's talent makes him one of the most sought-after players on the free agent market. (David Banks/Getty Images)
The Upton brothers are heating up the Hot Stove. In a relatively thin free agent market for high-end talent, 28-year-old B.J. Upton has been getting plenty of attention, particularly from NL East teams in search of a centerfielder. Meanwhile, 25-year-old Justin Upton, who is under contract with the Diamondbacks through 2015, has been dangled as a trade candidate, just as he was back in July. Where they wind up will be one of the more fascinating subplots of the offseason.
Both Uptons have struggled to live up to the sky-high expectations that accompany being top draft picks and blue-chip prospects. B.J. was chosen second overall by Tampa Bay in 2002 and reached number two on Baseball America's Top 100 prospects list in 2004. Justin,meanwhile, was chosen first overall by Arizona in 2005 and was ranked number two on the list just a year later. But at a time when clubs are set to throw $50 million or $100 million dollars (or more) at outfielders on the wrong side of 30 — Josh Hamilton (32 next May 21), Nick Swisher (32 on November 25) and Michael Bourn (30 on December 27) — the brothers represent younger and far more athletic options, and both could benefit from changes of scenery.
B.J. set a career high with 28 homers this year, surpassing the 24 he hit back in 2007 and the 23 he hit last year. He added 31 stolen bases as well, but his final season in Tampa Bay was still something of a disappointment, as his plate discipline eroded. His .298 on-base percentage was 44 points below his previous career norm, though his .246 batting average wasn't far off from his standard (.257) and his .454 slugging percentage was well above (.416). Underlying his low OBP, his 6.5 percent unintentional walk rate was well below his previous career mark of 10.8 percent, while his 26.7 percent strikeout rate was his highest since 2007.
Granted, Upton was playing in a pitcher-friendly environment, and so his production is better viewed in terms of True Average, which expresses a hitter's runs created per plate appearance on a batting average scale after adjusting for park and league scoring levels; his .277 was one point below his 2011 mark and seven points above his career norm. His 2.1 Wins Above Replacement Player was held back by a low rating for his defense (-7 Fielding Runs Above Average), but the other major systems found him to be anywhere from −4 to +2, with accompanying Wins Above Replacement marks ranging from 2.6 to 3.3.
In departing Tampa Bay, Upton will likely be moving to a more hitter-friendly environment, and one where he doesn't have so much baggage. While he'll have plenty of pressure to perform for his new team just as any big-dollar free agent would, he'll be free of an organization where he earned an early reputation as something of an enfant terrible, and was occasionally benched for a perceived lack of effort. Fortunately, those incidents have become fewer and further between over the years.
The Nationals, Braves, Philles and Rangers are among those expressing interest in Upton. He declined the Rays' qualifying offer and will thus cost the signing team their first-round pick unless it's one of the top 10; he's said to be seeking something along the lines of a five-year, $75 million deal. Washington, which has long coveted him, could move Bryce Harper to leftfield (or right, with Jayson Werth moving to left) and either trade Mike Morse or shift him to first base while bidding adieu to free agent Adam LaRoche. The hitch is that the Nationals' lineup already tilts heavily to the right, with Harper and LaRoche the only lefties and Danny Espinosa the lone switch-hitter. The Braves have a vacancy if they can't re-sign Bourn, whose contract demands are said to be higher, and Upton is apparently their top free agent priority. Bourn is defensively superior to Upton according to most metrics, and is coming off a .348 OBP, which while not outstanding does position him as a leadoff hitter. That said, the difference between his .339 career mark and Upton's .336 comes out in the wash after considering park environments.
B.J. is said to top the Phillies' list as well. They have an opening after trading pending free agent Shane Victorino to the Dodgers back in July, and their recent hiring of hitting coach Steve Henderson is a potential draw given that he was Tampa Bay's hitting coach during Upton's breakout 2007 season (.300/.386/.508 with 24 homers at age 22). The Rangers stand to lose Hamilton to free agency, and could eye Upton's power potential in their hitter-friendly park as a reasonable replacement.
As for Justin, back in June, Diamondbacks managing general partner Ken Kendrick made waves by calling him out in the midst of a slump. General manager Kevin Towers dangled the rightfielder prior to the July 31 deadline, with the Yankees, Phillies and Pirates among those expressing interest. While the Diamondbacks wound up holding onto him, all signs pointed to talks being revisited in the winter. While there's been renewed buzz with regards to the prospect of trading for him — the Rangers and Red Sox are among those who have checked in — Kendrick now says that ""there's a very high likelihood" that Upton will still be with the team when the 2013 season starts.
For all of Kendrick's dramatics, the Diamondbacks might be better off waiting if they want to deal him, since he's coming off something of a down year: .280/.355/.430 with 17 homers and 18 stolen bases, numbers that lose a bit of their luster given Chase Field's offense-friendly environment and a 2011 performance that suggested that he was on his way to living up to the Ken Griffey Jr. comparisons with which he's been saddled since at least 2006. In fact, the younger Upton's career has been a real rollercoaster:
Injuries have been a key factor in those ups and downs; Upton spent time on the disabled list in 2008 and 2009 for oblique strains, and throughout 2010 battled a left labrum injury but didn't undergo surgery (note that his older brother had shoulder issues that cut into his power back in 2008-2009). He suffered a left thumb sprain back in April of this year, which likely factored into his power outage. He hit just .269/.358/.396 with eight homers through July 31, reaching a .400 slugging percentage only in June, but heated up to hit .298/.350/.486 with nine homers the rest of the way, including six in September.
On the other hand, Upton is just starting to get expensive. He signed a six-year, $50 million extension in February 2010, and after making $6.75 million this past year — which would have been his second of arbitration eligibility — he'll make $9.75 million in 2013. His salary rises to $14.25 million in 2014, which would have been his first year of free agent eligibility, and then $14.5 million in 2015. Despite his dings and dents, such cost certainty is something general managers crave, and with an average of 3.4 WARP over the past four years, he stands a good chance of being worth twice his 2013 salary.
That explains why the Red Sox, who cleared out over $270 million in salary commitments with their late August blockbuster trade, and the Rangers, who face losing Hamilton, are in the mix. The Diamondbacks are said to be seeking a shortstop in trade, and while Texas has been unwilling to deal either Elvis Andrus or top prospect Jurickson Profar, it is said to have explored the possibility of sending slugging third base prospect Mike Olt — who's blocked by Adrian Beltre — to the Braves for shortstop Andrelton Simmons. The Rays have also expressed interest, and they have a good shortstop prospect in Hak-Ju Lee, but Upton would take up a considerable chunk of their payroll; on the other hand, they could shift Matt Joyce from rightfield to left, and move Desmond Jennings back to his natural centerfield position.
Complicating any trade of Upton is a clause in his contract that allows him to block deals to up to four teams. This past year, those teams were said to be the Yankees, Red Sox, Indians and Cubs, but they've since changed to four new teams, with the Blue Jays and Mariners said to be on that list. Presence on the list isn't a dealbreaker, but it does give an additional hurdle to be negotiated around, perhaps in the form of a contract extension.
The bottom line is that it's tough to read the Diamondbacks' mixed signals given their fickle ownership. Given the blockbuster deals we've seen this year, it would hardly be a surprise if a team — particularly an AL club such as the Red Sox, who have a deep farm system and a clear need — pulls out the stops to acquire him.