B.J. Upton finalized a five-year, $75.25 million contract with the Braves makes him the highest-paid player in franchise history, but his dad Manny was most pleased that he signed with Atlanta, a short flight from the family’s home in Chesapeake, Va.
“Put a little word in Frank’s ear so we can get the other one here,” Manny Upton said after a news conference Thursday at Turner Field, where center fielder B.J. donned a Braves jersey and posed for pictures with his new manager, Fredi Gonzalez, and general manager Frank Wren, who gave him the largest free-agent contract in franchise history.
Manny and Yvonne Upton were smiling, proud parents on the day their 28-year-old son put Tampa Bay behind him and started with a clean slate and a team that moved aggressively.
The “other one” that Manny Upton spoke of bringing to Atlanta? That’s Justin Upton, 25, the Diamondbacks slugger who finished fourth in MVP balloting in 2011 and has been mentioned in trade rumors that Arizona general manager Kevin Towers has only fueled.
The Braves’ remaining offseason priority is to sign or trade for a left fielder, preferably one that could lead off but more importantly one that can help them win. Justin Upton could obviously do that, and some Braves fans practically drooling over the thought of both Uptons and right fielder Jason Heyward forming the most dynamic outfield in baseball.
“It’s been a big conversation of ours,” Upton said of playing with his brother. “Obviously he’s up [for free agency] in about three years. Is it a possibility? Yes. Is it going to happen? We don’t know. It’s definitely something that we’ve both talked about and would like to have happen.”
But have they talked about it happening now? “No, not at all,” said Upton, with a smile that made his answer less than convincing.
But it would take a boatload of talent to pry him from Arizona, and the Braves player Towers covets most, talented young shortstop Andrelton Simmons, isn’t going anywhere.
The Braves are more likely to trade for one of the other outfielders they’ve targeted. Minnesota’s Denard Span was at or near the top of their board, but was traded to Washington on Thursday.
That could increase the Braves’ focus on Colorado’s Dexter Fowler, an Atlanta native and Milton High graduate who bats leadoff and is affordable. He would likely cost the Braves a young pitcher in a trade.
The Braves are also considering free agents such as Shane Victorino and Cody Ross. Talks could heat up with other teams and free agents at the Winter Meetings next week in Nashville.
For the record, the Braves would probably have to trade pitcher Tommy Hanson or someone else to free up payroll in order to take on the salary of Justin Upton, who’s owed $38.5 million over the next three seasons. That includes $9.75 million in 2013 — a little less than what the Braves are believed to have left to fill out their roster, including bench and bullpen.
But Thursday wasn’t a day to talk about what might be as much as it was to discuss what is certain – B.J. Upton is Atlanta’s new center fielder. A bundle of fast-twitch muscles and sinewy limbs, Upton has spent his entire career with the Rays and hit .246 with a career-high 28 homers and 31 stolen bases in 2012.
Upton got a $3 million signing bonus and will receive salaries of $12.45 million in 2013, $13.45 million in ‘14, $14.45 million in ‘15, $15.45 million in ‘16 and $16.45 million in ‘17.
“We felt this was always where it was going to end up,” Wren said of the deal’s size and scope. “You probably always pay a little more than you want to, but this is right where we thought it would end up.”
He’s streaky and strikes out a lot – more than 160 times each of the past three seasons — but is a good outfielder and a constant threat to go deep at the plate or steal a base. He provides a needed right-handed presence in the middle of the lineup.
He replaces Michael Bourn, 30, whom the Braves didn’t want to sign to the kind of contract he seeks, longer and more lucrative annually than what they gave Upton.
“I’m excited, man,” said Heyward, who attended the news conference. “It adds a veteran, so to speak, but he’s still only 28 years old. Had playoff experience at a young age. That’s going to help this team. That’s one thing that’s exciting to me about the move. You know the talents he has, as far as speed, power and defense. But at the same time, he’s had playoff experience at an early age and says we’re ready to compete.”
“It’s great to feel like we’re going forward. We’re not going backwards.”
B.J. stands for “Bossman Junior,” a nickname that Melvin Emanuel Upton received at an early age as a nod to his father, known as Bossman.
Upton has seen his on-base percentage drop nearly 100 points over the past four seasons, to a career-low .298 in 2012. At the same time, he has increased his home-run totals each of the past four seasons, and has 51 homers and 159 RBIs over the past two seasons.
He said his last several seasons have been just “OK” and that he aims to raise his average and reduce his strikeouts in 2013.
Wren said the signing continues the Braves’ plan “to get younger and more athletic, and able to play the game the way it’s being played today. He brings a great defensive dimension and also power to the center field position. I think two weeks ago when he and his representative came in to visit us, we were blown away.
“Larry Reynolds is his agent, and we had talked in Palm Springs and he made it very clear that this would be a place that B.J. would like playing. And once he came and visited, we came away with a real positive impressive and we wanted to see if we could make this happen. So we were excited yesterday to finish the deal.”
Both parties gushed after a two-week whirlwind romance of sorts that began with a Nov. 15 visit to Atlanta and Turner Field, where Upton said he was blown away by the Braves’ family vibe and low-key, no-pressure presentation.
“These guys did a very good job,” Upton said. “They made me feel at home. That means more to me than anything.”
He talked for hours with Wren and Gonzalez that day, and the Braves brought in the big gun for the occasion, their iconic ex-manager.
“Bobby Cox was awesome,” Upton said, smiling. “I really didn’t know what to expect with him coming in the room. But just sitting down and talking to him, it was like I’d known him for years. That definitely was pretty cool…. These guys, they got me. There’s no other way to put it. They had me when I came here. I left here and I felt really good about it.”
And after doing a lot of background checks on Upton, talking to everyone from former teammates and coaches to clubhouse attendants, the Braves were convinced that Upton was the thoughtful, respectful and passionate player they talked to Nov. 15, not the petulant or lackluster sort some perceived after a couple of incidents in Tampa Bay.
“They all came back with roaring reviews of B.J., and that goes back to Mr. and Mrs. Upton and the upbringing they gave him,” Gonzalez said, nodding toward the two parents in the front row. “Because nobody ever said anything bad about him. And the clubhouse guys, in our business they know everything. And it was rave reviews. Not only can he perform on the field, he adds another dynamic to our clubhouse and to our club. It’s going to make us better.”
The largest previous Braves free-agent contract was pitcher Derek Lowe’s four-year, $60 million deal before the 2009 season. The Braves traded the disappointing Lowe to Cleveland in November 2011 and agreed to pay $10 million of his $15 million salary last season as a condition of the salary-dump deal.
Upton’s $15.05 million average salary over the next five seasons also makes him the highest-paid player in Braves history, surpassing the $15 million average Lowe received and the $15 million average that Chipper Jones got in a six-year, $90 million contract the iconic Braves third baseman signed in August 2000.
Asked if the contract might bring more pressure, Upton said, “I hope there’s not added pressure. But I’ve dealt with things like that in the past, the kind of things with what’s expected of me. So I won’t put any added pressure on myself. I’ll just go out and do what I can do help this team win.”
He’s pleased he’ll be able to stay at his Tampa home during spring training, and thrilled that he’ll play home games outdoors on grass, not the artificial turf of Tropicana Field, the Rays’ often maligned domed stadium.
“I’m pretty excited,” Upton said. “We all know artificial turf is a bit rougher on the body than natural surface. I think baseball is a game that’s made to be played outside, and I’m excited to be able to play [home games] outside, and then to be on some natural grass.”