November 6, 2012

The case for, and against, B.J. Upton.

In 2007, a 22-year-old named Melvin Emanuel Upton hit .300/.386/.508 in 548 plate appearances for the then-Tampa Bay Devil Rays. He was 10th in the American League in OPS and ninth in slugging percentage. Bossman Junior had arrived.

Those same Rays, now sans-Devil, made the World Series in 2008. After a very quiet sophomore season (nine homers, .401 SLG), Upton socked three dingers in the ALDS and four in the ALCS before coming up lame against the mighty Philadelphia Phillies. Perhaps superstardom wasn't in his future, but the kid obviously had the kind of talent that most teams would treasure.

But here we are, late in 2012, and B.J. Upton is available to all who may want him. And not only that; he's affordable! The second pick in the 2002 draft, with 118 homers and 232 steals at the age of 28, can be had for the low, low price of (probably) $65 million over five years.

By comparison, Josh Hamilton is asking for (and probably won't get) seven years and $175 million. He's a 31-year-old former drug addict, albeit one who hit 43 homers in 2012. If he's big risk/big reward, Upton is medium risk/medium reward. You seemingly know what you're getting, but is he worth such a (relatively) modest commitment?

Upton's averaged a .416 slugging percentage since his breakout 2007 season, which is about right. I don't think anyone expected him to slug around .500 for his career, and he's become a steady 30-double, 25-homer kinda guy. The real concern is his on-base percentage, specifically how it's sunk like a stone. Starts at a mighty .386 in 2007, steady at .383 in 2008, plummets to .313 in 2009. And it's gotten worse -- his .298 OBP in 2012 puts him in a class with famed flame-outs (and, sigh, occasional postseason award winners) like Delmon Young and Gordon Beckham.

So what happened to B.J. Upton? Maybe just time and regression. Eric Seidman of Phillies Nation reminds us that "offense is declining across the sport," which doesn't explain such a massive fall but does provide a new context in which to view Upton's numbers. He also notes that his unadjusted OBP over the last three seasons falls in line with the American League average, favorably comparing B.J. to Shane Victorino and implying that Upton would essentially provide what Shane brought to the table from 2010 to 2012.

I think we'd all take that. But I still find it disconcerting that Upton's numbers have gotten worse, not better, as his career goes on. His strikeouts have increased every year since 2008, reaching 169 this past season; maybe the league figured him out, or maybe Upton couldn't make the adjustments necessary to go from good to great.

Then again, if B.J. Upton had a yearly OPS that matched his monster 2007, he would cost a lot more than $13 million per year. You get what you pay for. And it's conceivable that Citizens Bank Park could be part of the cure for whatever ails him; Tropicana Field in Tampa Bay consistently ranks as one of the worst parks in baseball for hitters.

It couldn't hurt the Phillies to get younger, and while Angel Pagan or even the aforementioned Victorino might be smarter (read: cheaper) investments, Upton provides more upside. Plus, there's no guarantee that skimping on center field would mean using that money wisely in other areas. Big-market teams should spend as such, and if Ruben Amaro Jr. is looking to snag lightning in a bottle with his new centerfielder, Bossman Junior's skills and potential make him the best bet.

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