The Braves made baseball’s first big offseason move when they agreed to terms with former Tampa Bay center fielder B.J. Upton on a five-year contract worth $75.25 million, the largest free-agent contract in franchise history.
The deal was agreed to Wednesday and became official Thursday after Upton passed a physical exam. He will be introduced at a 2 p.m. Thursday news conference at Turner Field.
Upton had already changed the avatar on his Twitter page to a Braves script “A” by early Wednesday evening, long before the Braves made an announcement.
Upton, 28, has spent his entire career with the Rays and hit .246 with a personal-best 28 homers along with 31 stolen bases in 2012. He will provide the Braves a badly needed right-handed presence in the middle of the lineup and team with right fielder Jason Heyward to give them a pair with the potential to go 30-30 (homers and stolen bases).
In a press release announcing the signing on Thursday, Braves general manager Frank Wren said, “B.J. is an outstanding defensive player who also adds the power dimension to our offense from the center field position. We have been working to increase the speed and athleticism across our team and B.J. gives us another young, dynamic player.”
The Winter Meetings aren’t until next week in Nashville, but the Braves have already filled their most glaring need by replacing All-Star center fielder Michael Bourn, who became a free agent and was expected to be too pricey for the Braves’ budget.
They gave Upton a deal that surpassed Derek Lowe’s previous team-record free agent deal of four years and $60 million, but was below what Bourn was likely to get.
The Braves still need to fill their left-field vacancy — the plan is for Martin Prado to move from left to third base to replace retired Chipper Jones — and also figure out the leadoff situation, since Upton is no longer the leadoff-type hitter he was earlier in his career.
The best leadoff hitter they’ve had in several years was Bourn. But he is a speed-centric player, and at age 30 the Braves didn’t want to sign Bourn to the long-term contract in excess of $15 million annually that agent Scott Boras seeks.
A source close to the situation said the Braves and Upton’s agent, Larry Reynolds, spent the day negotiating after Upton opted for the Braves over NL East rival Philadelphia, his other aggressive suitor. Upton wanted a sixth contract year, but the Braves would not do that.
Upton has increased his home-run totals each of the past four seasons, and has 51 homers and 159 RBIs over the past two seasons.
His given name is Melvin Emmanuel Upton, but the Norfolk, Va., native goes by B.J. for “Bossman Junior.” It’s a reference to his father, Manny Upton, who was known as Bossman.
The only other major leaguers with at least as many homers and stolen bases as Upton in 2012 were Brewers star Ryan Braun (41 homers, 30 steals) and the Angels’ super rookie Mike Trout (30 homers, 49 steals).
Unlike Braun (.319 average, .391 OBP) and Trout (.326 average, .399 OBP), Upton hit for a low average with a career-worst .298 OBP, and nearly four times as many strikeouts as walks (career-low 45).
Upton had more than 160 strikeouts each of the past three seasons. He joins a Braves team that had three of the NL’s top 10 strikeout leaders in Dan Uggla (168), Bourn (155) and Heyward (152).
The older (by three years) brother of Arizona right fielder Justin Upton, B.J. is smaller and more durable, having played at least 144 games each of the past five seasons – the only major league center fielder who can make that claim — while averaging 39 stolen bases.
In August, he became the eighth player in major-league history to total 100 homers and 200 steals before turning 28. He turned 28 on Aug. 21.
Upton declined the Rays’ one-year, $13.3 million qualifying offer last month, which means he will cost the Braves their pick near the end of the first round in next year’s draft. Atlanta will get a compensatory pick between the first and second rounds when Bourn signs with another team (the Braves made a $13.3 million qualifying offer to Bourn, who declined).
Upton made $7 million in 2012 and $14.825 million over the past three seasons, and has earned just over $16 million during his entire six-year major league career – not much more that he’ll make per season with the Braves.
He reached the majors as a teen in 2004, when he played in 45 games and hit .258 with 14 extra-base hits (four homers) and a .324 OBP in 159 at-bats, with 46 strikeouts. That’s about the same strikeout rate he’s maintained.
Upton didn’t return to the majors until 2006, when he played in 50 games. Hhe arrived on a full-time basis with the Rays in 2007, when he had what remains his best season in his first full year in the majors.
His .300 average, .386 OBP, .508 slugging, .894 OPS and 82 RBIs that season all remain career highs, and his 24 homers in 2007 were his best until 2012.
Now that the Braves have their center fielder, they’ll look to fill the last remaining opening in their lineup and fill out their bench. They could make another move during the Winter Meetings.
Minnesota’s Denard Span would fit the left field/leadoff bill and seems the most attractive of the trade options checked into by the Braves, who could dip into their surplus of starting pitching to make a trade. But so far, Minnesota has been slow to advance any trade talks.
Colorado center fielder/leadoff man Dexter Fowler, an Atlanta native and Milton High graduate, has also been on the Braves’ board as a potential trade target. The Braves fully intend to play Upton in center, so if they do pursue Fowler, it’d presumably be to play left.
If necessary, they Braves could sign another free agent, with Shane Victorino among possibilities they might consider. Angel Pagan of the Giants is a more attractive free agent and viable leadoff man than Victorino at this stage of the latter’s career. But Pagan is said to be asking for at least five years and $55 million, a hefty contract for a player his age (31) with such a relatively light statistical resume.
Also, Pagan might not wish to move from center field, where he’s spent most of his career and all of the past two seasons. It was generally assumed that Pagan would return to San Francisco, although lately that has no longer appeared a certainty.
The Braves have also discussed non-leadoff hitters including free agent Cody Ross as left-field options. Ross was interested in the Braves a year ago but didn’t get the offer he wanted from them and ended up signing with Boston and having an impressive season.
The biggest potentially available corner outfielder in baseball is none other than Upton’s brother, Justin, who will be at Turner Field for Thursday’s news conference, but only in support of his brother.
Arizona general manager Kevin Towers has said he’s not trying to move Justin, but will listen to offers. The Diamondbacks made it known they’d want multiple young players including shortstop Andrelton Simmons from Atlanta, and that’s a non-starter for Braves officials — they’re not trading away the young shortstop.
In 2011, Justin Upton hit .289 with 75 extra-base hits (31 homers), 21 stolen bases and an .898 OPS to finish fourth in MVP balloting. His OPS has been just below .800 in a pair of 17-homer seasons surrounding that one.
He’s owed $38.5 million over the next three seasons, including more than $14 million in each of the last two years of his contract before free agency.
If the left fielder they get can’t bat leadoff, the Braves could look within for a top-of-the-order hitter, with Simmons perhaps the likeliest candidate in that scenario.
It’s believed the Braves have at least $10 million remaining in their budget to apply to next year’s salary for a left fielder, although it’s hard to know because they divulge almost no financial details.