Free agent center fielder BJ Upton is receiving a lot of interest this offseason as the second best center fielder on the market behind Michael Bourn. Upton is being courted by many teams so far this winter, but two have jumped to the forefront as the favorites: the Phillies and Braves, NL East rivals.
The Braves are looking for a center fielder after Bourn's contract demands priced him out of Atlanta's budget, which isn't shocking. The Phillies on the other hand, traded long-time center fielder Shane Victorino to the Dodgers at the trade deadline and mainly rolled with John Mayberry Jr after that trade. Mayberry, who will turn 29 in December, isn't a long-term option in center as a below average defender with severe platoon splits over his entire career.
In their pursuits of Upton, there may be an interesting bit of gamesmanship between the two teams. For as desperate as a center fielder as they are (and a left fielder, for that matter), the Braves cannot afford to get into a bidding war with the Phillies for Upton. Philadelphia GM Ruben Amaro has shown a propensity in the past to overspend on the free agent market (Raul Ibanez, Placido Polanco, and Jonathan Papelbon all say hello), and I'm sure he wouldn't hesitate to dump a truckload of money in Upton's front yard, especially if the Braves are involved. By the same token, Amaro needs to know how far too far is. If the Braves continue to raise their offer as the Phillies raise their offer, maybe it would be worth it for the Phillies to take a step back and let the Braves have Upton for an inflated cost, potentially hamstringing their efforts to find a left fielder this winter.
I'm pretty sure everyone knows what you're getting out of Upton at this point in his career: 20 homer potential, 40 steal potential, low batting average, average to below average defense in center...what exactly is that even worth anymore? Once thought to be one of the premier center field options in the league, Upton was 16th among qualified players in wOBA last season, 12th in wRC+, and 11th in fWAR. Even if you tweak the parameters to make it a three season sample, Upton is 14th in wOBA, ninth in wRC+, and ninth in fWAR. What's that worth in a world where Torii Hunter got $26 million over two seasons, Matt Kemp got a $20 million per season, and Adam Jones got $85.5 million over six years, but Andres Torres is a nontender candidate, Chris Young got dumped for (essentially) an all-glove middle infielder and salary relief, and Shane Victorino doesn't even get a qualifying offer?
I'm sure that the Braves would love to bring Upton in on a contract resembling that of Michael Cuddyer's last season with the Rockies (three years, $33 million), but I don't think that's going to do it. I'm sure Upton is shooting for something resembling Adam Jones' extension with the Orioles (six years, $85.5 million). I'm also sure that the Phillies are going to be prepared to go to war for Upton's services and will likely be much more inclined to overpay for him and give him Jones money. If this turns into a bidding war, the only thing that will stop the Phillies from getting Upton is the Phillies. If Amaro wants him, he'll get him. But a contract like the Jones extension would absolutely cripple the Braves and their spending abilities fro the rest of the offseason, and it's at least worth Amaro considering letting the Braves have Upton with a contract like that.
For the record, I don't think Upton is worth a contract anywhere near the value of the Jones contract. Something like four years and $50 million would probably work out the best for the signing team, but I don't think that's something Upton would jump at unless there weren't any better offers on the table. He's not a player I would count on as a long-term building block, and in Tampa Bay, he was continually overshadowed by Evan Longoria, Ben Zobrist, and even Desmond Jennings this past season. After awesome seasons in 2007 and 2008, Upton has still been good, though not overly great since. If the same player from those two seasons was the guy who showed up in the four seasons since then, he'd be getting nine figures without blinking. He hasn't been that player for years though, and expecting that guy to return is a little short-sighted.