N.L. East Battle Royale for Center Fielders

Collage of B.J. Upton, Michael Bourn, Shane Victorino and Angel Pagan.Reports surfaced this week that Tampa Bay Rays CF free agent, B.J. Upton, took visits to Atlanta and Philadelphia. Further speculation is that Upton may next visit the Nationals. Yet, this is only the beginning of a developing storyline in the National League East: the race to fill center field.

All three of the division’s best teams enter the offseason with the center field spot potentially vacant. The Braves made a qualifying offer to Michael Bourn (one year, 13.3 million) which he, of course, declined. The Phillies dealt Victorino near the deadline last season and the Nationals have Bryce Harper as an option, but may consider moving him to LF and adding a CF if that presents best overall improvement to their team. Watching the dominoes fall should be interesting, and while each team is generally looking at the same position, their needs and expectations may slightly differ. The question is, which candidate best suits each contender?

When surveying the market, there are four major options for center field. Each brings slightly varying skill sets and cost. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll use Jim Bowden’s salary estimates.

Michael Bourn, 31 years old – 5 years, 75 million, $15m AAV
B.J. Upton, 28 years old – 5 years, 70 million, $14m AAV
Angel Pagan, 31 years old – 3 years, 33 million, $11m AAV
Shane Victorino, 32 years old – 3 years, 28.5 million, $9.5m AAV

There’s a steep decline in expected price from the top two (Bourn and Upton) to the others (Pagan and Victorino), however, that also comes with a likely expected decline in production. Only one of the four offers more than a sliver of power (Upton). Each of the four give speed on the basepaths. The major differences in production may come down to defensive value, which oscillates tremendously for each of the four, with the exception of Victorino, who remains consistently good. Since every club now features their own proprietary defensive measurement tools, perceptions of defensive value likely vary from organization to organization.

Upton, unquestionably, offers the most upside. Victorino presents the largest risk for sharp decline. Bourn is likely the highest bust candidate due to the fact that he features a skill set that is not historically a money maker in MLB. Pagan comes with the most mystery. He’s the least tenured with the shakiest track record.

Atlanta Braves

The Braves made attempts to re-sign Michael Bourn, but there was little traction. Bourn being a Boras client likely did him no favors with Atlanta management, who notoriously refuse to deal with Boras. Rumors abound that Michael Bourn is seeking a contract around $100 million. Frankly, that would be unprecedented for a player of his skill set.

Bourn is considered one of the premier defensive center fielders and leadoff hitters in all of baseball. But if you look at others of a similar profile (say, Kenny Lofton, who was a superior player), they’ve never commanded that type of money. The chances of Bourn returning to Atlanta are almost non-existent.

B.J. Upton seems to be Atlanta’s top target, and it makes sense on a lot of levels. The Braves feature a left-hand heavy lineup, so there is natural appeal to adding a right hand bat. Further, the rapid decline of Dan Uggla makes for a hole for “run-producing” bat. Upton’s bat profiles more middle of the order than top of the lineup. Beyond 2007 and 2008, he’s struggled to obtain an above average OBP or BA.

Yet, he’s also the youngest and most talented of the group and entering his prime seasons. It’s possible the best of B.J. Upton hasn’t been seen. If the Braves think his hitting issues are correctable, he likely provides the best option for long-term production.

The question though, is budget. The Braves will likely sit in the same range as they did last season, around $83 million. They currently have around $55 million committed. They still need to fill center field, left field or third base (left field more likely with Prado sliding down to third). If they commit $14 million per to Upton, it greatly restricts their ability to fill other holes, unless they are able to shed further salary in another deal (which would also require more moves).

Budget considered, Shane Victorino and Angel Pagan may make more sense for Atlanta. Victorino is largely believed to be in decline, but he does bring intangibles and playing against the team that cast him off may provide extra motivation. Pagan’s career took an interesting path. He didn’t become a regular until three seasons ago and he’s put together two very good and one very bad season sense then. It should be noted, his awful 2011 can be connected to injuries. Healthy Pagan produces healthily. That said, considering his contributions to the Giants during their World Series run, they will likely be willing to go a little further for him.

Prediction: Braves sign Victorino to a 3-year deal around $25 million.

Philadelphia Phillies

The Phillies cut ties with Victorino last summer, so that chapter is closed. The leaves the remaining three names.

The Phillies have a ton of money already committed to their pitching staff as well as Rollins, Howard and Utley. They cut ties with Placido Polanco and aren’t settled at any of the three OF spots. Though they have no qualms with spending money to get the players they like, they made some measures to cut cost at the deadline last season and they desperately need to get young.

Adding Pagan may make sense from a financial standpoint in terms of offering financial flexibility to upgrade other positions. That being said, since when do the Phillies care about financial flexibility? Much like the Tigers, Red Sox and Yankees, they feel comfortable spending on whomever they feel will give them the best opportunity to win.

B.J. Upton makes the most sense in Philadelphia. They would like to add some more power to the middle of the lineup. Defensively, he may be the weakest of the four, but the defensive potential is there. They made a large pitch to him, including Jimmy Rollins in the process. It’s clear he’s the guy they covet. I suspect they’ll be willing to go the necessary years and dollars to secure him.

Prediction: Phillies sign B.J. Upton to a 5-year deal around $80 million.

Washington Nationals

Of all three teams, the Nationals are probably the most settled. They have money, but they are also largely set at most positions. They do have decisions to make in the OF and at 1B. Adam LaRoche is unlikely to return, after declining his qualifying offer. The most logical move is to slide clunky masher Michael Morse down into 1B and seek to fill one of the OF vacancies with a free agent.

The real question is, where do they project Bryce Harper? Defensively, it seems almost a waste to put him into left. He’s got superb range and an excellent arm, which make him more ideal for center or right. Right field is already secured by the outstanding Jayson Werth. So that leaves CF.

That being said, CF is a rugged position that creates more wear and tear. Historically, it’s a young man’s position, which works well for Bryce, but do you want to risk a higher chance of injury by sticking him there the first few seasons of his career? That’s a decision only Mike Rizzo and company can be comfortable with.

All that being said, Michael Bourn makes a lot of sense in Washington. He’s long been coveted by Rizzo and putting him between Harper in left and Werth in right almost ensures the Nationals to have one of, if not the, best defensive outfield in all of baseball. Further, the Nationals ranked in the top 10 in baseball in home runs in 2012. Of all the teams, they are the one who need additional power the least. Bourn may be ideal for his speed and defensive offerings. I also still don’t believe he’ll command as much money as Boras or others anticipate.

Prediction: Nationals sign Michael Bourn for 5 years, 60 million.