Outside the Box: B.J. Upton

 The Seattle Mariners are not going to have an easy time getting free agents to take their money. It’s difficult enough getting players to come to a losing team, and even more trying getting a hitter to voluntarily choose the Mariners and Safeco Field. So, trades will be considered.

A year ago, B.J. Upton signed a 5-year, $75 million deal with the Atlanta Braves. His brother, Justin, was acquired by the club via trade and all was jolly. The Braves thought they hit paydirt as big as I did recently at castlejackpot.com. Then the season started, B.J. struggled and was eventually benched after batting under .200 with tons of strikeouts, no patience and limited power.

As a result, Upton’s contract looks pretty bad right now, but this scenario also may give a club such as Seattle a chance to acquire Upton on a buy-low basis. The Braves, I’m told by multiple sources close to the situation, are willing to discuss trading Upton, and may be willing to include enough cash to cover a year’s salary. Let’s assume both are true.

That would make Upton a 4-year, $45 million player, roughly. Sounds tough to swallow, still, for a player that was worth -0.6 fWAR in his first year in the National League, especially considering it would also cost something of value. We’re not talking about a premium package of talent, but he’s not going to be free, either, particularly if the Braves are including some cash. Clearly, part of the motivation for Atlanta would be saving $45 million or so, but it doesn’t seem to me they are willing to just give him away. If the return package isn’t something useful, they’re better off giving Upton a few months in 2014 to right the ship and return to being a valuable asset.

For the Mariners, they could see a player with a good chance to return to form, at least closer to what he was in 2011 and 2012, while continuing to play good defense in center field. He’d be significantly cheaper than Jacoby Ellsbury — albeit with little chance to match Ellsbury’s production — and if he hits he’s one of the 2-3 right-handed bats the M’s have been looking for since 2011.

I’m not sure I like the idea of adding Upton, almost regardless of the trade cost, but not because it’s $11.33 million per year over four years. I’m skeptical of adding any players at any significant salary that may not perform enough to stay in the lineup. It makes it even tougher to take that said player would be sucking up more than 10 percent of the club’s entire payroll, which is unlikely to exceed the $110 million range, even if they were to convince a few of the top free agents to sign on the dotted line.

The Mariners, however, need outfielders, and right-handed batters, and if this were a year ago and Seattle snagged Upton for five years and $56.65 million — $11.33 million per year — the analysts would not have shredded the contract from the team’s perspective. Shaving a year off it at 4/$45m is even better. The question is: Can Upton play?

I asked a few of chief scouts if they’d seen Upton this year and if so what they saw, and here are the responses I received:

“He was lost every at-bat I saw,” said an NL rival’s scout. “I saw him for about 20 at-bats, and he was a shell of his old self. He appeared to completely lose confidence in himself. I’m surprised he wasn’t benched sooner.”

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“That isn’t the hitter that torched Chicago and Boston five years ago in the playoffs. This guy was expanding the zone right away in most at-bats. Didn’t seem to understand what was going on, either. Like he had no answers, nothing to try, no standard to check back to. I wouldn’t touch him.”

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“Not really (so) good anytime I saw him. In fact, he was bad. Swung and missed badly, and attitude poor.”

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When I asked some of the same scouts about Upton’s future:

“I’d be worried that he’s a head case now. The money is a huge problem on two sides; One, he’s making a lot of it and not performing, so that hurts the team. Two, he’s not playing for anything but winning now. I’m not saying he’s not a winner and doesn’t want to win, but maybe a lot of his motivation was free agency.”

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“I’d still take a chance on him if I were Texas or the White Sox or a team that plays in a hitter-friendly park. Why? Because I think mentally B.J. needs a boost. That isn’t going to happen in Atlanta. It wouldn’t happen in either L.A. ballpark and it wouldn’t be better in Seattle, in my opinion.”

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Still, Upton is just 29, the prime for many athletes, and it’s difficult to believe he’s already done as a regular in terms of performance. Perhaps he’s having issues playing with his brother — the opposite of what the hope was for the Braves when they acquired both players. Maybe the league change got to him and therefore he lost confidence. A return to the American League could help a little bit, but I think the last comment from the scout about a hitter-friendly environment and Upton maybe needing a mental boost makes a lot of sense.

Seattle does not appear to be the best fit, regardless of the trade and financial commitment. Beggars can’t be too choosy, though, so we may hear some whispers that the two clubs have had trade discussions involving the centerfielder.

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Jason A. Churchill

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