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Wednesday, November 28, 2012
Braves add needed power in Upton

By David Schoenfield

The Atlanta Braves replaced one free-agent center fielder with another, signing B.J. Upton to a five-year contract, ensuring the departure of Michael Bourn.

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It’s a solid signing for the Braves, especially since Bourn’s asking price might have been beyond what they wanted to pay. With Upton, they get younger (he turned 28 in August, while Bourn turns 30 in December) and also a much-needed right-handed power bat, considering most of their power resides in southpaws Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman and Brian McCann.

Last season, the Braves had a .721 OPS against right-handed pitchers but .689 against lefties, so Upton should bring a little more balance to the lineup. Don’t be surprised if they sign another right-hander to play left field – Cody Ross? -- with Martin Prado shifting to third base.

But does Upton make the Braves better? He’s been all over the board in his career. His best offensive season came way back in 2007, when he hit .300 with 24 home runs and a .386 on-base percentage. After posting a .383 OBP in 2008 thanks to 97 walks, he hasn’t come close to that figure in recent years with a .316 OBP over the past four seasons as he hit between .237 and .246 each year. His walks, once a strength of his game, dropped to 45 in 2012, perhaps as he became homer-hungry in his free-agent year. He did hit a career-high 28 bombs, but posted a career-low .298 OBP.

According to pitchF/X data, Upton had swung at 21 percent of pitches outside the strike zone in 2007 and just 17 percent in 2008, but that figure has risen through the years to 30 percent in 2012. It has resulted in increased power, but the overall offensive package isn’t as valuable as it was in ’07-’08.

Defensively, he’s not in Bourn’s league, both by eyeball tests and defensive metrics. Defensive Runs Saved rates Upton at minus-19, minus-7 and minus-4 runs the past three seasons compared to Bourn’s average of plus-17. Because of that, and because of Bourn’s better on-base skills, Bourn has averaged 4.5 WAR the past three seasons compared to Upton’s to 2.1. (FanGraphs WAR likes Upton’s defense better, so their system sees him as a 3- to 4-win player).

It’s a solid signing -- old-timers must be rolling in their graves about a .240 hitter getting $15 million per season -- of a low-risk player, considering his age, position and durability. It leaves the Braves without a classic leadoff hitter, since Upton is best suited for lower in the order. Prado becomes the best option to use there.