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.”

————–

“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

Churchill founded Prospect Insider in 2006 after getting his start at InsidethePark.com. He spent several years covering prep, college and pro sports for various newspapers, including The News Tribune and Seattle PI. Jason spent 4 1/2 years at ESPN and two years at CBS Radio prior to joining HERO Sports in July, 2016. Find Jason's Mariners podcast, Baseball Things, right here and follow him on Twitter @ProspectInsider.

9 Comments

  1. Sorry, misread your post. We are in agreement. Go with Young if you can.

  2. Bid difference in Young and Upton is that Young won’t be getting $41 million to play centerfield.

  3. We all know what you’d do, because you find high value with the gratification of “finding” value players. Yes, it’s cool because it makes you look smarter than the other guys, but when it fails, you have wasted money.

    Screw the “high reward” transactions as a means to improve. They’re great for supplementaion, but they are not the kind of moves you make move your team forward. You have to have a base, and to me, taking on $41 million for a guy who could be a great “value” pick, or could become Jack’s next “Figgins” is not a good investments.

    And, the “we won’t compete next year” stuff is just an excuse. Upton wouldn’t be a one year investment, he’d be a four year investment of $10 million a season that could be used in a more productive way.

  4. “Seattle needs fewer gambles……the time for finding a bargin ended two years ago. It’s time to spend money on players with fewer question marks, not more.”

    Why? As a team that is highly unlikely to contend next year, isn’t now a great time to focus on low risk, high upside players? I don’t think that applies to Upton specifically, but in general, I think the M’s are in the perfect situation to look for bargains. Especially with so much young talent at or near the ML level, but not quite established. The M’s need depth, luck, and players they can flip for prospects if (when) they fall out of contention next year. Bargain bin players are the best way to add that.

    “This would be exactly the kind of deal that fans are already beating Jack up for.”

    I don’t think that’s true at all. The deals that fans are beating up Jack about are the focus on one-dimensional DH-only types last year, plus a reliance on too many unproven players without adequate depth to mitigate problems. Its not like Jack added a bunch of high-risk, high-reward players and got burned too often. Its what he was focused on (“big boppers”) that was the problem, not where he was looking.

    I’d say that most of Jack’s successes have come from adding undervalued, buy-low guys: Aardsma, Guti, Vargas, Jaso, Wilhelmsen, Iwakuma, ect. They need to get back to this, especially given their current position.

    In fact, if I were running the club, I’d load up on high risk, high reward players this offseason. They could follow a similar track as Boston last year, but focusing more on risky guys. If it works out well, great. They could surprise next year, or find themselves with some great trade chips. If they crap out, the M’s can just replace them with younger players already in the organization.

  5. No way. I would rather see what Almonte could do than take Upton–even if they just wanted Noesi in return.

  6. One other thought about Upton:

    To me, Upton and Chris Young seem like very similar players. Both are close to the same age, play CF well, are interesting power/speed guys, and are coming off a few disappointing seasons. Additionally, both are the same types of hitters: low BA, lots of K’s, but some walks and good power. Statistically, both likely to hit ~.250/.320/.425 with 20-25 HRs, Both are also ex-top prospects who never really figured it out. The main difference is baserunning, where Young is merely good while Upton adds a ton of value in SBs. Upton, he was an uberprospect who looked like he was turning into one of the better players in baseball after 2007-2008, but slid afterwards. Young’s best seasons – 2010 and 2011 – are more recent. After an injury plagued 2012, he still has a bit of upside.

    All else equal, I’d probably rather have Upton since he has better tools and probably a bit more upside. Plus, his offensive numbers didn’t come from the weaker league and a bandbox home stadium. But these guys are very similar.

    However, all else isn’t equal. Although both are coming off terrible years, Young is a free agent and won’t cost much in terms of money or years, or require us to give up prospects or draft picks. Upton is signed for four years at a pretty high salary.

    Honestly, I think Young gives you 99% of what Upton brings to the table, but at 50% of the price. Easy decision.

  7. Interesting idea, but for me to consider it the return would have to be minimal. I’m not crazy about a four year contract being gambled on, but if the Braves are solely interested in salary relief then I think it could be worthwhile. Mighty big if, but this would be an interesting one to keep tabs on this winter.

  8. A big no from me. Seattle needs fewer gambles, especially with $40 million left to pay. The time for finding a bargin ended two years ago. It’s time to spend money on players with fewer question marks, not more. This would be exactly the kind of deal that fans are already beating Jack up for. No way. Unless the Braves pay half his salary, to eliminate the risk that comes with taking his contract, move on and say no thank you.

  9. Yeah, I thought a bit about this too when I heard he might be dealt.

    Its an interesting idea for all the reasons you mention. If he’s right, he basically Franklin Gutierrez with a lot more steals. Thats a pretty good player.

    The biggest issue is the years. If he continues to suck, he basically Figgins 2.0, and we’d be stuck with him for 4 years.

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