FanPost

The Phillies should target B. J. Upton for 2013 . . . and . . . or?


The target

As a companion piece to my Fan Post calculating how much the Phillies have available to spend on free agents in 2013, this one sifts through whom to spend the money on. The choice isn't obvious. The positions of greatest need are third base and center field. Worthy free agents for third base are nonexistent. For center field there are plenty of worthy candidates out there, but none who provides everything the Phillies should be -- and perhaps are -- looking for. The one who comes closest is B. J. Upton. A segment of the fan base will be satisfied with nothing short of Josh Hamilton. But Hamilton will take nothing less than a Howardesque contract to bring into someone's fold. The Phillies already have four $20M+ players on the payroll, three of whom are going nowhere for four years or more. And Hamilton brings with him a lot of baggage to worry about over the long term.

Why Upton? Start with the fact that he is 27 years old in a field otherwise comprising thirtysomethings. It's going to require something on the order of a five-year deal to lock up a player of Upton's age and accomplishments. That would make him all of 32-33 years old when his deal ends; in other words, about the age of his competition right now. B. J. doesn't satisfy every wish. He's a lifetime .256 hitter, and a team like the Phillies mostly made up of .250-.260 type hitters would no doubt like more. A career wOBA of .338 is solid, but unspectacular. Maybe most distressingly, Upton strikes out -- a lot, about 25% of the time over his career. On the plus side (did I mention he was 27?) is the fact that Upton can bang a baseball. He has hit 23 and 28 homeruns respectively the last two years. His ISO in those same years is an impressive .186 and .210, respectively. Impressive, that is, given that Upton is a speed guy who has averaged 33 stolen bases the last two years and has good range as a center fielder.

So Upton brings a mix of desirable and undesirable qualities to the table. He is not a prototypical leadoff man, carrying a career OBP of .337, modestly above the league average. He doesn't lead off for Tampa Bay, his current team, nor would he for the Phillies either. What he would do is hit right-handed with power for a team that needs right-handed power-hitting. His career splits are very good. He would also provide speed, which, the line goes, "you can't have too much of," and would go on providing it for a number of those years when the speed of Rollins and Utley will inevitably decline. He's currently working under a one-year $7M contract that could as much as double starting next year, but that figure is not at all beyond the capacity of the Phillies to pay.

Upton's chief competition in the mind (and probably the heart) of Ruben Amaro is Michael Bourn. You get the impression for some time now that Rube covets Bourn, and when Rube covets his focus has been known to exceed his judgment. A very good center fielder, Bourn has been seen by the fan base as the kind of leadoff hitter the Phillies have badly needed for a number of years now. He has been an automatic base stealer, the kind who lets a pitcher know he's going, going early, and there's no way to stop him. 61 stolen bases in 2011 is impressive. 37 in 2012, not so much; that puts him about where Juan Pierre has been as a part-timer. Bourn's star has been shining ever more dimly throughout this season, though Fangraphs still credits him with a gaudy 6.1 WAR. As of this writing he is batting only .274 (around his career average), his OBP (again, slightly above his career mark and slightly below the career mark of Upton) is a decent but unspectacular .346, and he has been in a half- season offensive tailspin. Bourn strikes out -- a lot. Not as much as Upton, but at a 20.1% career clip. He also doesn't walk much. Less, in fact, than Upton does. And here's the thing. He bats left-handed, is three years older than Upton, doesn't have significant power, and has Scott Boras for an agent. Up until mid-season, the thinking was that Bourn might hold out for as close to $20M over 5yrs as Boras could get him -- and would stay and stay and stay on the market until it happened. Bourn's second-half fall off may have dimmed those prospects somewhat, but he still figures to command well in excess of $15M. Not a deal the Phillies really ought to jump at.

There are other options not to be sneered at. There's some sentiment on TGP for resigning Shane Victorino, and it's hard to know how to evaluate that option. Victorino is 32 years old. Although he never put a figure out there, you have to believe that his "home team discount" was at least three years at around $14M per with a strong vesting option a la Rollins . What offer he would entertain after a sadly unspectacular 2012 season is unclear. Looking at the numbers put up the last two years by the other 2013 free agent outfielders gives you some appreciation for the 2011 season Victorino had. Even with his steep fall off in the last six weeks or so of the season, he posted 6.0 WAR (comparable to Bourn's best year) and a .212 ISO, higher than any free agent outfielder not named Hamilton, including Nick Swisher, has posted in the last two years. If you're inclined to wait on the development of Tyson Gillies a couple of years down the road, trying to get a probably declining Shane on a shorter-term deal than he originally envisioned isn't the worst idea out there. Shane might not feel the same, though. Another sleeper option with that same scenario in mind is Angel Pagan, who has been a well-kept secret in the NL and who is currently on a modest $4.85M contract with the Giants. Pagan's career batting average is a respectable .282, his OBP is comparable to Bourn's and better than Upton's, and his career wOBA is better than Bourn's. He's averaged 30 stolen bases the last two years, too. But the Phillies have to do better than Angel Pagan if there is only one position-player acquisition. And the bet here is that the Giants recognize what they have and resign him.

And . . . Or . . .?

Alternative scenarios that ought to be considered at least a possibility -- unless, of course, "Babe" Ruf enters the picture as the most-welcomed of unexpected guests -- is to target a right-handed corner outfielder instead of or in addition to a center fielder. Nick Swisher, a switch-hitter, would be the high-end candidate, Cody Ross, who bats right, the low end. Ross is said to be looking for a 3yr. deal somewhere in the neighborhood of $20M. Swisher is said to have delusions of grandeur, looking for a long-term deal at star money (7yr/$126M). Swisher can hit a baseball, averaging more than 25 homeruns a season over the last eight years, and has a reputation as a Clutch Hitter™ (career RISP OPS .822, in 2012 .977). However, he carries with him the burden of being a 32 year old below-average-fielding, bound-to-regress Yankee. A team willing to countenance a three-year contract with Raul Ibanez probably isn't very hung up on most of those issues. I could live with Nick Swisher in the Phillies outfield, but not at Nick Swisher's putative price. Cody Ross at the lower end is Nick Swisher Lite, and is even more reviled for reasons that needn't be rehearsed. I could live with Cody Ross in the outfield (barely), but only in addition to a new center fielder, not instead of one. He's a .285 career hitter and his splits are significantly better than right-handed hitting John Mayberry's. But for three years? Nah. A better bargain than either is Melky Cabrera, who is four years younger and coming off a monster season--well part of a season. Cabrera, a switch-hitter, hasn't hit under .300 against left- or right-handed pitchers for the last two years. His asking price, particularly in years, has to have dropped significantly. But you'd have to hold your nose and try hard to forget that the Phillies have prided themselves on being home to "character" guys. And wonder what exactly he has without PEDs.

So that's the cream of the 2013 free-agent outfielder scene. I'd like to see Domonick Brown and two new faces in the Phillies outfield next year. I'm OK with one of those faces being home-grown, but not a face that I've seen out there regularly or semi-regularly this year. Not unless Josh Hamilton is out there on opening day anyway. John Mayberry Junior would make a capable reserve who could platoon with Brown (as could Ruf, as well) if Brown's performance warranted it and could fill in at any outfield position in the event of injury. If you feel differently, fire away.

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