This edition of Extension Watch is going to be as much about a player worthy of a lengthy extension as it is about a player who is among the most underrated players in the entire history of the game. When considering B.J. Upton, put all traditional thought aside, because Upton's value comes primarily out of the fact that all of his skills are incredibly underrated. Upton's ability to draw walks, his great power, and his elite speed have helped him put up some of the best value numbers you will find among American League outfielders. The other great thing about Upton is that he got started very early in the majors, so he will only be 27 by opening day of 2012. When you combine all of these skills plus his relative youth, Upton is the perfect candidate for an extension.
Now, it is one thing to speak of Upton's underrated value, but it is another thing to be able to show it and understand why Upton is so underrated. To help bring light to this comparison, we're going to compare Upton to the average center fielder over a 5 year span (Upton took over CF duties full time in 2007 for the Rays).
Upton: .257 BA/ .346 OBP/ .425 SLG (114 wRC+)
Average CF: .266 BA/ .332 OBP/ .413 SLG (100 wRC+)
However, those are just the raw numbers. Here are some other numbers that Upton has put up that should be considered over that time span:
37 SB (12 CS/ 76% success rate)/ 3.6 rWAR (0.7 dWAR)/ 4.0 fWAR (2.86 UZR)
Upton's end results are fantastic unless you're a diehard traditionalist who is going to hold his below average batting average against him. Upton's inability to make frequent contact is one of his only weaknesses as a player. In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to find anything in his rates that suggests he will be slowing down any time soon. This is why Upton is such a great candidate for an extension. He's in the middle of his prime, he doesn't have any major holes in his game, and he plays one of the game's most valuable positions. Upton is constantly ridiculed by fans who are quick to judge against him and completely unaware of what he can provide to a team. With that being said, let's look at our four basic things to understand when considering an extension for B.J. Upton:
1) His future value
2) The structure of a possible extension
3) The ability of the Rays to extend him
4) Other feasible options for him to look at if he doesn't sign an extension
Section One: Future Value
The reason this is section one is due to the fact that it is the single most important part to understanding a possible extension. Teams pay for future value, and they do not pay for past value. Let's take a look at some of Upton's raw rates from the past two years (since those are the years we are most concerned with when considering future ability):
2010: 11.0% BB/ 26.9% K/ .187 ISO/ .304 BABIP/ 0.91 GBFB/ 11.0% HR/FB
2011: 11.1% BB/ 25.2% K/ .186 ISO/ .298 BABIP/ 1.00 GBFB/ 14.1% HR/FB
The biggest thing to notice here is the consistency between the two years. No real flukes, and no red flags to speak of. Upton's BABIP is seemingly low for a speedster, but it actually has been consistently low over the past three years since he really has started to hit more fly balls compared to the earlier part of his career. Perhaps Upton's most underrated aspect is his power. No, he's not a 30 home run guy, and compared to his brother, his power is weak. However, don't let yourself undersell Bossman Junior, because he tallies up extra base hits a lot. His .186 ISO last year was 7th among major league center fielders (6th if you toss out Josh Hamilton), and his .187 ISO over the past two years is 8th (guys like Josh Hamilton, Carlos Gonzalez, and Vernon Wells are there that don't play CF full time). So what we're looking at here is one of the more dynamic offensive center fielders in the game.
Where Upton changes the playing field is on the bases, however. His 78 steals in the last two years are good for 2nd (distant second behind the incredible 113 steals by Michael Bourn) in the majors, and he has only been caught 21 times (79% success rate). This kind of volume and efficiency in base stealing adds the value Upton needs to create higher wRC+ values, because it's rather rare base running ability that we are seeing.
The most promising thing from Upton is that there aren't any major red flags or warning signs to look at in his game. He strikes out a lot, but he does so at a consistent rate and it doesn't hurt his game so much as to drive people away. He walks a lot for a center fielder (5th in the majors over the last two years), and his ground ball to fly ball ratio is consistent and balanced, meaning Upton can see value from his power and from his speed.
Section Two: Structure of a Possible Extension
The best thing going for Upton is that he is still somehow only 27 years old. However, because of that, we can't expect his speed to last forever. This will eventually greatly impact his base stealing, but it will impact his defense even more. Over the last two years, Upton's defense has come in at just above average by UZR and dWAR, and from what I have seen, he has a propensity for getting terrible reads on the ball off the bat, but he is able to save himself with his elite speed. Due to this, I expect a slightly more rapid regression out of the prime (especially since Upton already has a ton of major league miles on him) than other players who are over similar age. However, let's not kid ourselves: Upton is still one of the more valuable and under appreciated players in the game. I would prefer a four year deal with Upton if at all possible, which would make me project his WAR (an average of fWAR and rWAR) this way over that period of time:
2012: 4.2 WAR
2013: 4.0 WAR
2014: 3.5 WAR
2015: 3.0 WAR
That is a grand total of 14.7 wins over four years at an average of 3.7 wins per year. Of course in structuring an extension, we need to look at how much this value is worth for a market fair extension. As with the other writings, I am going to borrow a model I generated based on some contract research I have done to project the average d/WAR value each year over the next four years:
2012: 4.0 d/WAR
2013: 4.3 d/WAR
2014: 4.6 d/WAR
2015: 4.9 d/WAR
As was the case in the Sean Marshall article, this model creates an average 4.45 million dollars per unit of WAR for extensions candidates over this period. That means that if Bossman Junior puts up 14.7 wins over that time frame, he would be worth 65 million dollars, or roughly 16 million dollars per season. this creates a possible extension (with a restructuring of 2012) that looks like this:
4 years/ 65 million dollars (16.3 AAV)
Section Three: Ability for the Rays to Extend Him
I'm not going to beat around the bush here: the Rays absolutely cannot extend Upton at this price. He would take up well over a third of the team's current payroll, and you don't make that kind of commitment unless ist is a franchise-type player who consistently puts fans in the seats and produces top 5 overall value. Upton is none of those things, although he is a fantastic baseball player. The Rays have made a living off of getting young players to agree to extremely team-favorable extensions in the past, but I doubt it is going to work with Upton, as he is very close to his pay day. Even last year, Upton made less than 5 million dollars, and he has made less than 10 million dollars through the first five years of his career. There is no doubt in my mind that he bypasses Tampa Bay and hits the free agent market as soon as he can (which is right after next year). However, this is not terrible for the Rays, because they have Desmond Jennings waiting to take over center field full time as soon as Upton heads for other pastures.
Section Four: Feasibility of other Options
Take your pick with this one. An extremely undervalued center fielder that probably won't go for what I have projected him to go in this article. I am expecting Upton to get an AAV around 12 million dollars on the open market, and that is because his skills are so undervalued. With that being said, his top potential suitor could very well be the game's biggest spenders:
1) New York Yankees
This would be a no-brainer if I were the general manager of the Yankees. Kiss Nick Swisher goodbye as he heads out the door, move Curtis Granderson to right field, and put BJ Upton in center field. Coudl you imagine a defensive outfield of Gardner, Upton, and Granderson? Not only that, but Upton's power numbers would likely go up in Yankee Stadium. The Yankees are a team that can easily afford Upton (even though there is talk that they really don't want to be at the 2014 salary tax level). Perhaps the biggest problem with this fit is the fact that Josh Hamilton will be a free agent in the same off season. The Yankees could put Hamilton in left, Gardner in center, and Granderson in right field and come out with extremely similar results (although Hamilton's injury concerns and age would make me go after Upton more aggressively).
2) Los Angeles Dodgers
This is a move I really like for this organization. Personally, I think Matt Kemp should be playing left field, much like Josh Hamilton does down in Texas. If you want to preserve his value and help him out long term, Kemp in left field makes all of the sense in the world. Bringing in Upton brings speed, defense, and power to a franchise that will be looking to get back their old reputation as one of the game's best franchises after Frank McCourt blew the franchise to bits. The Dodgers will have new ownership, not a lot of committed money, and they will most certainly be looking for pieces to put around Kemp and Kershaw.
3) Seattle Mariners
Catching up to LAA and Texas is no easy task, but getting Upton would be ideal for Seattle. He's not a super stud power bat, but he can hit 15-20 homers up in Seattle, and his speed and defense fit the ballpark very well. If Upton gets overlooked because of the pitching talent on the market and because Josh Hamilton is the only recognized superstar hitter, then his value could drop enough to fall well within Seattle's price range.
In the end, I really think this is what is going to happen. The Rays are currently probably the sixth best team in the American League, and if the Red Sox have the bounceback year they should, the Rays won't make the playoffs. This presents the perfect opportunity to trade Upton for a package of prospects that is centered around a young power hitter (which is vital for the Rays to get). Ideally, the Rays would look to acquire the best young power hitting first baseman they can (he could play another position, but first base is the position of greatest need for the Rays right now). This move would allow Desmond Jennings to move to center field, and the Rays could pretty easily find someone to take over in left. Look for Upton to be traded at the deadline this year if the Rays start falling out of contention.