B.J. Upton’s Contract Bodes Well for Outfielders Seeking Big Deals as First Free Agent Domino Falls

At this point, it’s probably fair to say that B.J. Upton is never going to be the player he was projected to be.

Like his brother Justin Upton, who’s also failed to live up to lofty expectations, Upton was supposed to be the kind of otherworldly talent that you could build a team around. A true five-tool talent, Upton was supposed to be something akin to Mike Trout, taking baseball by storm and making a huge difference on the field for the Rays.

Now, this is not to say that Upton is a bad player. By all accounts he’s in the upper echelon defensively among center fielders, and a .758 OPS for a guy who can impact the game both with his glove and with his legs, too, is nothing to sneeze at.

But Upton is 28 years old and has now been in Major League Baseball for parts of eight seasons, so we know what kind of player he is, and he’s a player who has limited upside offensively. He’s also a player who, all other things being equal, probably isn’t worth the $15 million per season over five seasons that the Atlanta Braves just agreed to give him.

Take, for instance, the five-year, $90 million contract that Torii Hunter signed with the Angels after the 2007 season. At the time Hunter was 32 years old, but in every other aspect of the game (aside from perhaps speed and stolen bases) he was a superior player to Upton, having posted an OPS above .800 four of the previous six seasons, and perennially winning the Gold Glove in center field — not to mention being one of the top character guys in the sport.

So, given the fact that Hunter at 32 was superior to present-day Upton in most facets of the game, and represents a team leader as opposed to Upton’s well-documented proclivity towards being disgruntled, it seems like there should be greater than a $3 million per-year discrepancy between the two.

Well, welcome to the free agent market in 2012, where teams are flush with television money and the realities of the market force teams to overpay for their desired targets. It’s been out there for a while that Upton was who the Braves were setting their sights on, and what the timing of this deal indicates is that Atlanta had a very good idea what it would take to sign Upton, and didn’t have any qualms with overpaying to get him — so long as they didn’t engage in a bidding war.

In the larger picture of Major League Baseball, Upton’s contract is a boon for the remaining free agent outfielders.

Some have suggested that the Braves “chose” Upton over their 2012 center fielder, free agent Michael Bourn — another outfielder in line for a huge payday. Only once in his career has Bourn had a slugging percentage above .400, yet he well could end up with a nine-figure contract now, given his elite defense in center and on-base skills. This wasn’t so much a choice as it was the Braves recognizing the potentially lower-cost option.

Either way, if a player as flawed as Upton can get $15 million per season, the rest of the free agent outfield crop is licking their chops. Cody Ross, in particular, seems primed to cash in on his career year with the Red Sox in 2012. That’s not to say that he’s going to get more money than Upton, but Ross is unique insofar as he’s a power hitter without age and injury concerns who you can slate in as an everyday addition to the lineup. The only two other players left who fit that bill are Nick Swisher and Josh Hamilton.

Speaking of Hamilton, he’s another player who figures to benefit from Upton’s deal. He may be three years older, but it’s going to be difficult for teams to shy away from giving Hamilton a mammoth five-year deal if Upton also received five. Like Prince Fielder last offseason, the realities of Hamilton’s production may well trump all the talk of baggage and decline with age.

Whether the big money 2012’s free agent outfielders are likely to get will be warranted remains to be seen. Chances are there will be at least a couple overpays in there.

Nonetheless, this is the reality of playing the free agent market, and expect this year’s unsigned outfielders to come up big winners in the wake of Upton’s contract.

Photo via Flickr/Keith Allison

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