The Atlanta Braves return home this week could be described as little...
How Good Is BJ Upton? What’s He Worth?
BJ Upton has been the face of the Tampa Bay Rays, bridging the gap between the Carl Crawford era and the Evan Longoria era. Upton is usually thought of as a speedy defensive centerfielder with some serious pop. A super high ceiling guy with the potential to be an unstoppable star. Upton has never really reached that potential, instead showing flashes of brilliance that seem likely to price him out of Tampa this winter when he finally hits free agency. Here’s the thing though, I took a look at Upton’s stats and, though he’s got an outside shot at 30-30 every season, he’s not nearly as good as he gets credit for and his dismal average and on base percentage greatly detract from his value.
The question of what exactly BJ Upton is is really the most important part of any discussion about him. If you still think that Upton has the potential to be the best 2 hitter in the game, a speedster with unprecedented power who can hit .300 year in and year out while stealing 30 bags and hitting 30 homers, then you have been and will continue to be sorely disappointed. Upton is way closer to a .240 hitter than a .300 hitter and he strikes out a ton: about 150 times per season, good for the top 6 in that category in each of the last 6 seasons.
If you think Upton is a 6 hitter who brings to the table the added bonus of stolen base potential and good centerfield defense, however, you might better understand Upton.
BJ Upton shouldn’t be counted on to carry a team (that’s not really a knock on him, there are only a handful of guys in all of baseball that can) and he shouldn’t be the centerpiece of an offense. But, as a solid defender who can hit behind the big guns in a lineup and drive in some runs, hit some homers and restart a few rallies after homers, he’s very valuable. There are not a lot of guys with 30-30 ability in the world.
That’s the big thing with Upton, he’s not a transcendant talent. He hasn’t made an All-Star game, he hasn’t hit above .250 since 2008. Upton’s closest player comparisons on Baseball Reference include Paul Blair, a guy who once hit .197 over the course of a full season. He is a good player but he’s not great. He does a few things well and a few things really poorly.
So what is Upton worth? He is making $7 million this season. He made a little less than $5 mil last season. Given their limited payroll, the Rays don’t seem like they will be able to resign Upton this offseason if he asks for anything more than he’s currently making (which he will).
To help me answer this question, I tried to use a player comparison. Who is Upton most similar to and what is that guy making? In my mind, Upton has a lot of similarities to Alfonso Soriano. Upton is, of course, younger and in better shape, but both are/were speed guys with unusual power. Soriano, his dramatic recent decline and his health issues notwithstanding, is better. He’s hit more home runs, stolen more bags and has a higher average. Upton is a better defender.
Now, Soraino is making something near $19 million a year, but he is dramatically overpaid. There is no way that Upton should be making what Soriano is making. Nothing close. Soriano is a good comparison of ability and would be a good ceiling for Upton’s paycheck if he was 7 years younger and paid appropriately. Instead, I’m going to use Nick Swisher.
Swisher doesn’t have the speed Upton does and is three years older but he’s more consistent, has an equal amount of pop, a better average, and gets paid for being a great clubhouse guy. Swisher will also be a free agent this winter but this season he’s making about $10.5 mil. Last year, he made $9.1 mil. That seems about right.
If BJ Upton found a team that wanted him to be their centerfielder and 5 or 6 hitter and wanted him to do it for about $11 million a year for 5 years (Nationals and Giants to name just two), all would be harmonious in the baseball world.