It is generally accepted that B.J. Upton will be the recipient of a big contract once he comes to terms with a new team (the Rays are totally out on him), but is he worth the kind of money he’s likely to get? Upton, now 28 years old, was the second overall pick in the 2002 amateur draft and has spent all of his Major League career with Tampa Bay. At times he’s looked brilliant, while at times he’s looked utterly helpless at the plate. Upton seems like the kind of player who can be difficult to get a grasp on when it comes to valuation. He has a big reputation, in a way, but he also has that vague air of disappointment about him.
Upton’s 2012 season is the perfect example of why he can be such a frustrating player. Despite his speed, Upton has always hit for a low batting average. He’s long been able to offset that issue by drawing plenty of walks, but in 2012 that skill failed to show itself. Maybe he was trying to put up more substantial power numbers with free agency looming, but the outfielder saw his walk rate dip to 7.1% after clearing 11% in four of the previous five seasons.
Upton’s brand new hacking approach is eyebrow-raising to be sure, but he did slug with more authority than he had in a while. His 2012 season boasted 28 home runs (a new career high), the second best ISO rate of his career (.208), and the second best slugging percentage of his career (.454). At the dish, Upton has the tools to hit for power and draw enough walks to get on base at a high rate despite all of his strikeouts. That’s a valuable skill set, but 2007 marks the only year in which everything came together at the same time. His power failed him from 2008 to 2011, and now he’s not taking walks.
Offensively, it seems like any team that signs Upton is just going to have to accept that he has a chance to help them in terms of both power and patience, but that his volatile fluctuations mean both may not happen at once. He’s the rare player who wouldn’t surprise many by posting either a .700 OPS or a .900 OPS. He might have a .380 OBP, but he might also fall short of the .300 mark. He is, however, still in his prime; Upton will have every opportunity to put all of his tools in the same bag and become a star again in his new home.
Aside from his mixed results as a hitter, Upton is always going to be valuable because of the other things he does on a baseball field. He’s been a consistently solid outfielder and base runner, and as a result he has been worth at least 3.3 WAR per FanGraphs in five of his six full seasons. That’s a very valuable player to have, especially considering he can handle center field. The whole package makes Upton a player who could legitimately earn $15 million per season just by continuing to do roughly what he has been for the past few seasons, and that’s not taking into account the possibility that he breaks out as he approaches 30.
Maybe the best way to look at Upton is as a player who will likely earn the contract he gets even if it isn’t through traditional methods. Maybe he’ll drive his new fans insane by swinging and missing at balls above his head, but he’ll also be one of the best base runners in the league and handle most everything that comes his way in center field. Plus, with so much power and patience potential, he may have another 2007 in him yet at the plate. B.J. Upton may not be a traditional star, but he isn’t far from being a weird one.