The Atlanta Braves have filled the first missing piece for the 2013 season.
In a deal signed last night, B.J. Upton is the newest member of the Braves organization. This shouldn’t come as a complete surprise, as the hot stove talk surrounding the Braves had all but written off Michael Bourn. That also shouldn’t be too much of a surprise; Bourn is on Scott Boras’ roster and will more than likely catch a sizable salary when all is said and done. But as with all deals, there are pros and cons to this deal, and Braves fans won’t be able to make a fully informed judgement until the 2013 season gets underway.
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Truthfully, us Braves fans tend to be wary of big deals.
In our defense, we have good reason to be. The deal for Mark Texiera not only yielded poor results, but we lost two players who arguably could’ve either gone far or been excellent trade bait later on. Add to that list Derek Lowe, Mike Hampton and more recently, Dan Uggla. That last one may not be completely fair, as Uggla has been a good defensive second baseman with a good on base percentage and may yet justify his contract if he has a good year at the plate next season.
But the Braves have had far more success bringing up young players from the minor leagues or signing young players with a lot of potential. So where does Upton fit in all of this?
A quick run-through of his career numbers: .255/.336/.422, which are good numbers, but certainly not enough to justify a contract like he just inked. His 2007 season was his best, with a slash line of .300/.386/.508. His power numbers dropped after that, but have been on a steady rise since 2008. He’s also stolen 232 bases over the course of his eight years.
But that’s just on paper. Obviously, the market in this offseason puts center fielders at a premium and this deal can only make Bourn’s eventual contract much bigger, particularly with teams in NL east.
Many people will argue that the Braves dropped the ball by letting Bourn go. They will say that what he brought to the team was worth whatever Atlanta would have had to pay to keep him here. I, for one, am not immune to making that same argument. But the Braves need to look ahead, more this year than any other. As I mentioned in a previous article, this is a new beginning for the Braves. They move ahead without Chipper Jones and Bobby Cox, the last members of the old legacy, and they have to continue to push onward.
Bourn was a hugely valuable asset to the Braves for the one and a half seasons he was here. His speed, defensive prowess and bat brought a new dynamic that Atlanta hasn’t seen in a long time. It pushed the Braves to change their game in some ways, the most important of which is the game of speed, which hasn’t exactly been their forte. He pushed on every at-bat, stretched singles into doubles, doubles into triples and his being on base raised the probability of an RBI for any hitter at the plate. That kind of play clearly inspired and pushed other speed threats like Jason Heyward, Andrelton Simmons and Martin Prado.
So if nothing else, Bourn has left an imprint on the Braves, an imprint that will continue on into this coming season and hopefully more seasons to come.
Upton will add a valuable piece to this strategy, with five straight seasons of 30+ steals. He’ll also bring a strong bat that could land him in the 30/30 club next season. That bat is also right handed, which will help balance a left-heavy lineup. His power will likewise be boosted by playing in Turner Field as opposed to the spacious Tropicana Field.
Some people will argue that his career-high 169 strikeouts and career-low 45 walks are a big problem that are representative of his lack of patience. I would counter that Bourn’s 155 strikeouts may have been more damaging as a leadoff hitter. I would also say that Bourn’s second half slump was seriously detrimental to the Braves offense, which is as much a compliment as a critique. He brought such a dynamic to the team that when he was hot, so were the Braves. But when he was not, neither were they. The Braves have had some practice teaching patience; Heyward, Freddie Freeman and Uggla are all good examples. In fact, Uggla’s walks jumped from 62 to 94 from 2011 to 2012.
As with all sports writing, there is a lot of speculation here. It’s impossible to know how this all will shake out until it’s nearly over. But the Braves are actually in a good position this offseason – their pitching is set. By set, I mean it’s stacked top to bottom; when Tommy Hanson is your weakest link, coming off a 13-10 season, you have to feel good. Add arguably the best closer in the game topping a deep bullpen and it’s fairly clear that pitching is not a winter concern. That leaves the Braves open to shoring up a pretty potent lineup, which could potentially make them one of the better lineups in the game by the time spring training rolls around.
By signing Upton, the Braves also have a chance to focus on a replacement for Bourn as a true leadoff hitter. That person can come from within, or they can go out and look for one. They have one hole left to fill – left field or third base, depending on what they decide to do with Prado, although it appears as though they’re leaning towards moving Prado to third, especially considering the field of potential candidates. I always thought Prado made a good leadoff man, but his recent situational expertise might make him better in the two hole. Simmons has made a good case for leading off; hitting for contact, having good speed and good sense on the base paths.
The upshot of all of this is that the Braves will be leaning on their own this year to make this season excellent. This could be the year that makes Heyward the superstar he’s been expected to be. It could be the year that Uggla finds his stride (finally) and becomes a power threat wherever he finds himself in the lineup. Brian McCann may finally have put his injury woes behind him and has the kind of year players hope to have before their contract is up. Freeman could likewise raise his offensive stakes, especially after giving his vision a chance to level out.
This doesn’t all revolve around the addition of Upton, but his youth and skill may be exactly what the Braves need to be an offensive threat this coming season, which is what they tended to lack last year, particularly when they really needed it. A move from the team he’s played with his whole career so far could be the spark he needs to move from being good to being great.
The Braves have been building towards a big year for a while now and this could very easily be that year. Many of their pieces are in place and by only having to fill two big holes, they have a chance to make decisive moves and focus on maximizing the return. I feel good about the Upton deal. I think it shows confidence in a talented young player as well as confidence in a team that performed well overall last season and has the chance to break out next season. The Washington Nationals are the team to beat next year, and the Braves are positioning themselves to once again be the stiffest competition.