Inside the Phillies: Case is strong for Phillies to pursue B.J. Upton

B.J. Upton, 28, hit 28 home runs and stole 31 bases in 2012 for the Rays. GENE J. PUSKAR / AP
B.J. Upton, 28, hit 28 home runs and stole 31 bases in 2012 for the Rays. GENE J. PUSKAR / AP
Posted: November 27, 2012

There are 11 centerfielders in the history of baseball who have accomplished what B.J. Upton did in 2012. Upton smashed 28 home runs and stole 31 bases. He was the oldest centerfielder to produce at least those totals, and he did it at the age of 27.

Now he is 28 and the youngest outfielder available in free agency this winter while theoretically entering his prime. That is more than enough to entice the Phillies and others to bid. The Phillies' winter begins with acquiring a centerfielder, the move that will dictate the rest of general manager Ruben Amaro Jr.'s offseason improvement plan.

It is not hard to understand the fascination with Upton, who was perennially viewed as an underachiever with so much potential in Tampa Bay. The Phillies need a centerfielder. They need speed. They need power. They need balance from the right side. They need to be younger.

If Upton signs a five-year deal, he would play his final season at age 32. For perspective, Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley will be 34 in April.

Upton hit more home runs (28) in 2012 than both Michael Bourn and Angel Pagan combined for (26) in 2011-12. Both Bourn and Pagan are older than Upton. Stick Upton in Citizens Bank Park for half a season, and the projections grow. Since 2008, Upton's home run totals have risen every season. So has his slugging percentage.

Yes, Upton strikes out. (He has averaged 162 whiffs over the last four seasons.) But it should be noted the Phillies struck out fewer times than any National League team in 2012. Generally, when you add power, the strikeouts are a by-product. These Phillies should accept that trade.

There are reservations, of course. Upton is not an elite defensive centerfielder like, for example, Bourn. His speed can mask some shortcomings. His 52 assists are most among centerfielders since 2007, which makes his arm a constant weapon.

Scouts have long bemoaned an occasional lack of focus in Upton, who was benched more than once by manager Joe Maddon. The Phillies have often made character evaluations an important factor in their roster decisions. This season will be no different; Amaro alluded to such at the GM meetings earlier this month.

"The tricky part about that is you better pay for the right guy," Amaro said. "When you pay for those guys, you just don't know how they'll play in Philadelphia. There's always a risk because you don't know a guy."

He might as well have been talking about Upton. During Upton's visit to Philadelphia last week, the Phillies reportedly had Jimmy Rollins as a part of the recruiting group. If anyone can read whether a player can handle this city, well, Rollins is the man.

The Phillies hired Steve Henderson, who has a relationship with Upton, as hitting coach. Upton was Henderson's pupil with the Rays from 2006 to '09, and that could breed initial comfort. Upton would not be asked to lead in a Phillies clubhouse teeming with veterans. In Tampa, he was the first-round pick saddled with the expectations of being a franchise's face.

He is not the ideal leadoff hitter. He does not hit for average. A rise in power numbers coincided with his lowest on-base percentage (.298) in 2012. His two best on-base percentages came in 2007 and 2008 while Upton worked with Henderson.

Both Bourn and Pagan posted career-high OPS figures in 2012. Using that measurement, Upton has had five better seasons than Bourn's best year and two better than Pagan's. The Phillies would be paying for upside on Upton, with the hopes a new environment more consistently unlocks his potential.

Upton will not be a bargain, but ultimately the Phillies are not searching for bargains. They need real offensive upgrades, and in this current market climate where Jonny Gomes is a $10 million player and Jeremy Guthrie is rewarded with $25 million for a fine half-season, there will be few bargains to be had.

If the Phillies have graded Upton above the rest, they'll likely pay what is required. That is Amaro's style and the expectation of a hungry fan base. The case for Upton is strong.

Contact Matt Gelb at, or follow on Twitter @magelb.

comments powered by Disqus