This probably isn’t fair to B.J. Upton, an immensely talented player with power, speed and the motivation that generally accompanies an athlete looking for a fresh start with a new team. It might not even be fair to Frank Wren, who was staring at significant holes in his lineup this winter and had relatively few options in how to fill them.
But that’s a lot of money.
It’s a lot of money for a young player who may have wowed the baseball world in 2008, but, statistically at least, really hasn’t blown anybody away since. It’s a lot of money for a franchise that just cleared a ton of payroll space and can’t afford to take a wrong turn and clog the financial ledger with a big mistake again. It’s a lot of money for a general manager who too often has taken that wrong turn and smacked into a wall.
Derek Lowe. Kenshin Kawakami. Dan Uggla. We’re not talking the Apple-Home Depot-Coca Cola trifecta of ground-floor investments.
The Braves just committed $75.25 million over the next five years to B.J. Upton, thereby making their new center fielder the highest paid player in franchise history. By 2017, and more likely sooner, we’ll know if the organization hitched their wagon to the right limo.
Wren is aware of the risks. He has endured past ones. He deserves credit for not becoming gun-shy with visions of an 8-22 Kawakami dancing in, and stomping on, his head. He also surely realizes that how Upton pans out will go a long way toward determining the Braves’ success and, therefore, defining Wren’s tenure.
“Any time you’re making a big investment you take a deep breath and think, ‘How does this affect our club going forward?’” Wren said Thursday. “We just felt he was such a valuable asset in the way he plays the game, and after meeting him [and realizing] the type of person he is and the type of teammate he’ll be, we wanted to go after him.”
It was news conference day. Everybody is happy on news conference day.
Upton hits for power. Upton plays defense. Upton steals bases. He can’t hit leadoff like Michael Bourn, but he hits right-handed. That should help a lineup loaded with lefties (Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman, Brian McCann).
Manager Fredi Gonzalez cracked that on defense, with the speedy Upton and Heyward, “We might not even need a left fielder.”
Smiles and laughter all around.
But Upton brings some baggage – at least, perceived baggage. In 2008, he twice was called out and subsequently benched by manager Joe Maddon for not hustling on ground balls. In 2010, he and Tampa Bay teammate Evan Longoria argued and had to be separated following an inning against Arizona when Longoria perceived that Upton lazily pursued a drive to the gap, allowing a double to turn into a triple.
Wren checked out all of the issues. He came away convinced the criticisms were either unfounded, overstated or the result of a young player still learning his way.
Upton didn’t hide from the topic.
“I’ve been tagged,” he said in a soft tone. “Why sugarcoat it? I can’t worry about it. The guys who were in the clubhouse with me know me.”
Braves special assistant Jim Fregosi lives in Tampa, Fla., and, according to Wren has seen Upton play “30 times a year. … He was there the night the ball was hit into the gap and said it was an isolated situation.”
Wren likened Upton to another former Braves center fielder, Andruw Jones. “He plays the position so gracefully that there are times it looks like he’s not hustling and he is. And there were times when he was younger, and I don’t think even he understood what was being said until they brought it to his attention.”
In the Rays’ postseason of 2008, Upton looked like baseball’s next superstar. He had seven homers, 16 RBIs and six stolen bases in 16 games. He hit .321 in the American League Championship Series against Boston. But he’s a .255 career hitter, and while his power numbers have ascended, with a career-high 28 homers last season, his batting average (.246), on-base percentage (.298) and strikeout total (169, one more than Uggla) don’t scream $75.25 million player.
Upton benefited from a thin free-agent market. But if he becomes the player some envisioned four years ago, the salary won’t be so out of whack, and one thing Wren and the Braves need now is a free-agent success story.
By Jeff Schultz
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