And so the posturing commences.
Numerous agents and executives who have spoken with the Phillies say everything else is on hold until they sign a centerfielder. Thus, the winter has rolled to a slow start with the possibility of heating up rather quickly.
What happens once one of the center-field dominoes falls? Should the Phillies be the ones to do it? Is there value in waiting out the process?
These are all debates the Phillies will have internally. Know that Ruben Amaro Jr.'s style is to take the aggressive route. He has preached patience this winter, but if there is a player he truly covets, then he will take action.
Maybe Upton is that player. The Phillies have rarely had an issue with annual salary in free-agent contracts. There is payroll space this winter. The length is what they will haggle over. Upton, 28, could seek as many as six years. The Phillies probably prefer four. Maybe they settle in the middle at five.
The presence of Atlanta - and possibly Washington - in the market could alter Amaro's tactics. Rarely (if ever) has the GM had to bid against divisional rivals for free agents.
The Braves, willing to publicly admit they hosted Upton, are wearing their best poker faces.
"We like him," Braves GM Frank Wren told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution this week. "But this time of year you've got a lot of lines in the water. You're not sure which fish you're going to catch. So you have to make sure that you have enough lines out there that you catch a fish. And we're very much in that mode. We're checking. We're involved on just about everything, every centerfielder that we like."
Ultimately, it comes down to how the Phillies value the three primary center-field options. Is Upton that far ahead of Michael Bourn and Angel Pagan? If they like Upton and he is snatched by a division rival, that makes it all the more bitter. Or, if they're content with any of those three, they could drive one's price up for another team and wait for the dust to settle.
That, however, would represent a distinct change in Amaro's strategy. Under Amaro, the Phillies have seldom been reactionary, and there are precedents for his establishing market value with a contract. If there is a "bidding war" among division rivals, so be it.
Bourn, represented by Scott Boras, is said to have larger contractual demands than Upton. The Phillies are fond of Bourn; their former draft pick often exchanged hugs behind the batting cage with friends Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, and even Amaro when the Braves were in town. They know he could handle playing in Philadelphia.
It's difficult to imagine Bourn commanding more than Upton on the open market, as widely speculated. Bourn posted a career-high .739 OPS in 2012. Upton, two years younger, has had five seasons with a higher OPS. Bourn is the better defender and running threat but just finished his least efficient base-stealing season. His dismal second half, in which his slugging percentage was lower than his on-base percentage, could be a glimpse at what a long-term deal could eventually look like.
Then again, there is no predicting Upton's future - or anyone's for that matter. It is not an enviable task, wading through the shocking sticker prices to find a match.
Contact Matt Gelb
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