The last couple of days have brought some interesting news on the centerfield front, with NL East rivals Atlanta and Washington both making significant upgrades to their rosters. The Braves inked BJ Upton to a 5 year/$75 million dollar deal yesterday as the continue their ongoing quest to add some pop to their lineup. Today the Nationals responded by swapping pitching prospect Alex Meyer for former Twins’ centerfielder Denard Span. These two franchises each won over 90 games a year ago, and their aggressive attitude (or Nattitude) early in free agency should pay dividends in 2013. Let’s take a look at the move each franchise made, as well as what it means for the rest of the National League East.
Braves sign BJ Upton to a 5 year/$75 million dollar deal
Atlanta’s biggest priority going into the offseason was to fill the gaping hole in centerfield that was being vacated by Michael Bourne. Bourne was a productive player for the Braves in his year-and-a-half with the franchise, but he’s going to be on the wrong side of 30 next season and that’s not the type of position player Atlanta usually signs. Upton on the other hand, is exactly the type of player the Braves look for. He’s going to be 28 next year, has a ton of raw power despite his small frame, and has become one of the best and most efficient base thieves in the league. There is a couple of knock against the former Ray though. He was occassionally prone to taking plays off in Tampa, which could cost Braves pitching outs, hits, and runs in the future. He also has a bit of a strikeout problem, whiffing at least 150 times in 5 of the last 6 seasons, and his on-base percentage was below .300 a year ago, which could be a red flag.
But some of those fears should be mitigated by the fact that he’s moving from a tough hitters part to an average one, where he’ll face the softer side of baseball in the National League. Upton hit 28 homers in 146 games a year ago, setting a new career high, and his base stealing efficiency improved to the point that he’s become one of baseball’s best at picking his spots. Upton nabbed bases at an impressive 85% clip a year ago and he’s already got 3 seasons of 40+ steals under his belt. He should be able to best Bourne’s production from a year ago on the offensive side of things, but he won’t be able to do the same with the glove. Bourn was the best defensive centerfielder in the National League a year ago, and although he was robbed off Gold Glove award in 2012 he’s already won 2 of them. And that’s something the 28 year old Upton will probably never do. The Braves defense shouldn’t slip too much however, because they still have a very excellent Jason Heyward in rightfield, and Martin Prado looks poised to start the year in left.
Contract-wise this is an intelligent move for Atlanta. Bourn will probably receive a slightly smaller contract for his services over the next handful of seasons, but it will be right in the range of Upton’s despite the fact that he’s a couple years older. Bourne also has some big red flags concerning his high strikeout and low walk totals, much like Upton, although he has nowhere near the same amount of power. Hitters who rely primarily on speed like Bourn does tend not to age very well, especially when they don’t draw any walks in the first place. Barring a major injury or a major bout of Carl Crawford-itits, the Braves should look like the winners in this theoretical swap down the road.
The Nationals acquire Denard Span from the Twins in exchange for minor league pitcher Alex Meyers
This trade could be the coup of the offseason. The Nationals, fresh of their first ever NL East title and a 98 win season, are obviously in all-in mode with the acquisition of Span. Meyers is a solid prospect, a hulking 6’8″ player with a big fastball and wipeout slider, but he’s also a season or two away from the big leagues. He also may never get to the point where he can repeat his mechanics well enough to turn into a starter. Span, on the other hand, is coming off of his finest season as a Major League thanks to his .283/.342/.395 slash and his slick outfield defense.
His acquisition also allows the Nationals to do a couple of things. First, Washington can now move Michael Morse into the infield to man first base, which will undoubtedly improve the outfield defense. Bryce Harper should slide over to left field with Span in center, which would give Washington the best outfield defense in baseball, at least on paper right now. Morse can take his lack of range and his big power bat to first, where he should acclimate nicely.
Secondly, Washington now has the leadoff man they could have sorely used a year ago. Span should be plugged in right at the top of the lineup, which allows Harper to slide down a spot, where his power and speed combo will play nicely as long as he gets on base. Span is a pro’s pro at that skill, which is the most important one for a leadoff hitter to have. His career .357 on base percentage and 20 steal ability should lead to more RBI chances for guys like Morse, Harper, and Zimmermann in 2013, which should lead to more runs. Washington will still have to find a way to replace the impact Adam LaRoche made a year ago, but as of today, the Nationals appear a little bit better than they were after their devastating Game 5 loss to the Cardinals.
What does this mean for the rest of the NL East?
There probably aren’t too many smiles on faces in the front offices of Philadelphia, Miami, and New York today, because this division just got a little bit tougher. Last year’s #1 and #2 teams just made big offseason splashes that should lead to improvements on the field. Miami and New York probably weren’t going to be in play for any big free agents this offseason, but that doesn’t mean their odds of clinching a playoff spot in 2013 didn’t just get worse.
As for the Phillies, these deals probably effect them the most. Philadelphia has a large hole in centerfield and was rumored to be in on Upton. I doubt that they want to pay the going rate for Michael Bourne at this point, which leaves Josh Hamilton as the biggest impact bat remaining on the outfield market. Are the Phillies ballsy enough to pull the trigger on Hamilton? GM Ruben Amaro Jr. has made bolder decisions in the past, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he looked at the shifting landscape in the NL East and decided to pick up the phone.