Phillies' hunt for centerfielder continues as B.J. Upton signs with Atlanta

Houston's Wilton Lopez could be the Phillies' setup man next year.
Houston's Wilton Lopez could be the Phillies' setup man next year.
Posted: November 30, 2012

The Phillies' pursuit of B.J. Upton is over, and it did not end well if you believe he was the team's primary free-agent target.

Upton, the youngest of the elite centerfielders on the free-agent market, will play next season with the Atlanta Braves after signing a five-year, $75.25 million deal.

That was the news late Wednesday. Earlier in the day, Houston reliever Wilton Lopez was in Philadelphia for a physical that likely will be a prelude to a trade that sends minor-league prospects to the Astros. A league source confirmed that the Phillies were in pursuit of Lopez, who would likely assume the role as closer Jonathan Papelbon's setup man.

It's no secret that a centerfielder is the Phillies' primary target this offseason. Even tight-lipped general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. is willing to admit that much. The Phillies had conversations with Upton's agent, Larry Reynolds, but one source indicated Wednesday that Amaro did not think the former Tampa Bay Rays centerfielder was the best fit for the Phillies.

Plenty of options remain, although Upton was clearly the most powerful righthanded bat of the free-agent crop. He hit a career-high 28 home runs with the Rays last season but also posted a career-low .298 on-base percentage.

The best pure power-hitter still on the market is the lefthanded-hitting Josh Hamilton, who slugged a career-high 43 home runs for Texas last season. He figures to get a bigger deal than the one Upton just signed.

By far the best defensive centerfielder, base stealer, and leadoff hitter of the remaining group is Michael Bourn, and the Phillies have expressed interest in him. Amaro has often said that he believes pitching and defense are the two most important areas for the Phillies, and he is particularly fixated on the up-the-middle defense.

Bourn, who turns 30 next month, led all centerfielders with 24 runs saved last season, according to FanGraphs. He has saved a major-league-high 66 runs over the last five seasons. He has also scored a total of 371 runs over the last four seasons, second in the National League to Milwaukee's Ryan Braun, and is one of only nine players to score at least 80 runs in each of the last four seasons.

The other element Bourn brings to the table is speed. He has averaged 51.4 steals per season since the Phillies traded him to Houston as part of the Brad Lidge deal after the 2007 season. His 257 steals in that span are the most in baseball.

Bourn, of course, will not come cheap. He is a Scott Boras client, and the agent figures to seek more than the deal the Braves gave Upton.

What makes Bourn's situation most compelling is that the Washington Nationals also have an interest in the centerfielder. It would be difficult for the Phillies, a team that has set the market at other positions in recent off-seasons, to watch the two division rivals that finished ahead of them sign Upton and Bourn.

Former Phillies centerfielder Shane Victorino and San Francisco's Angel Pagan are also among the free agents still available, and it's also possible Amaro could try to fill the center-field vacancy through a trade.

That the Phillies would be interested in a pitcher of Lopez's caliber comes as no surprise. The eighth inning proved to be an albatross for the Phillies a year ago. The team ERA in the eighth inning was 4.67, the worst of any inning, and the Phillies lost 12 times when they had a lead going into the eighth inning.

The addition of Lopez, a 29-year-old righthander from Nicaragua, would be an inexpensive alternative to potentially fix that problem. He was 6-3 with 10 saves and a 2.17 ERA for the Astros last season, and he walked only eight hitters in 661/3 innings. Lopez posted a 2.25 ERA in the eighth inning and a 2.19 ERA in the ninth inning.

He made $515,000 last season, and this winter will mark the first time he is eligible for salary arbitration. He will not be eligible for free agency until 2016.

There was no indication Wednesday night what the Phillies would have to give the Astros in order to complete a deal for Lopez.


Contact Bob Brookover at bbrookover@phillynews.com or follow him on Twitter @brookob.

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