The most sought-after free agent hitter on the market this winter will undoubtedly be a centerfielder, but it may not be the one you’re expecting.
While Josh Hamilton has an MVP under his belt already and will have another top-five finish in 2012. Hamilton will certainly draw serious interest and fierce competition during the Hot Stove season, but teams will be wary of handing out a contract of significant length to a guy who often misses time due to injury.
On the other hand, Tampa Bay’s B.J. Upton has averaged 148 games per season over the past five years while Hamilton has averaged only 129. He’s also a full three years younger than Hamilton.
It was Upton, not Hamilton or any other slugger, who lead major league baseball in home runs during the month of September and with three games to go, Upton has already posted a career-high total of 28 bombs this season. If he can club two more in the next three days, he’ll have his first-ever 30-30 campaign.
There is no doubt that Hamilton’s personal history will, at the very least, give some owners pause. Hamilton has had a couple of very public relapses in his battles with drug and alcohol addiction; something Upton has never had an issue with. Hamilton is a solid defender and runs pretty well, but Upton is an elite defender and runs like a gazelle.
Where the two aren’t particularly close is at the plate.
While Upton has ridden a scorching month to a career-best home run total, he’s sitting on a .245/.299/.457/.756 line in 2012, which is nearly identical to his .758 career OPS. Hamilton, meanwhile, has, in different seasons, lead the league in batting average (.359 in 2010), RBI (130 in 2008), and is currently leading the league in homers this year with 43. Hamilton owns a .943 OPS in 2012, which is higher than his career mark of .915.
This isn’t a small difference in production, it’s a chasm. And that chasm will price Hamilton out of most markets, leaving the less expensive Upton as the player with more suitors.
There has been speculation that Upton could get something in the neighborhood of $12 million per year for five, maybe six years. It’s hard to imagine Hamilton getting a contract of similar length, but the average annual value will likely come close to doubling what Upton gets.
The Boston Red Sox are a club that immediately jumps to mind when thinking about the upcoming free agent period. Boston dealt away a pair of $20+ million men in Adrian Gonzalez and Upton’s former Tampa Bay teammate, Carl Crawford. Hamliton is a better fit in Boston due both to the obvious opening in left field, which would play better into Hamilton’s defensive strengths, and that the Sox can easily afford a massive contract like the one Hamilton will command.
The interesting thing is that if Hamilton were to leave the Rangers, Texas could be in play for Upton as his replacement. The Rangers have some major payroll decisions to make this Winter and there is a lot of talk that maybe they might be ready to move on from Hamilton. By swapping Upton for Hamilton, the Rangers would see an upgrade defensively plus save themselves roughly $8-10 million per season.
Upton is still young enough that teams could convince themselves that he may still improve. It’s fools gold, however.
B.J. Upton is a ultra-talented player who seems to always under-perform. His baserunning and defense are great, but his bat is far too streaky to be counted upon as a elite player. Hamilton may miss 25 games or so per year, but his bat will more than make up for the lost time.
Even with Upton’s monster finish to the season, he isn’t in Hamilton’s class. He’ll still get a very rich contract, but my guess is the likelihood of a club having some buyer’s remorse is a lot higher with Upton than it is with Hamilton, even with a significant difference in money.