As a team, you want to put your best players on the field. Are the Rays doing that right now? Given all the injuries they have fought through, they’re putting their best possible group of players into action. But in a couple weeks, that may not be the case.
B.J. Upton appeared to take a step forward in 2011, hitting his most home runs since 2007 while still swiping 36 bases. With 2012 being his walk-year, we thought that he was going to be motivated and that we would see at least flashes of the upside that stil has not come out after Upton was the second overall pick in the draft back in 2002. Well, it hasn’t. 2012 has been an opportunity for Upton. Joe Maddon has installed him in the 3-hole quite often because with Evan Longoria and Matt Joyce hurt, Upton should be the best option. Instead, he has fallen flat on his face. Upton entered the All-Star Break with a .248/.303/.376 line, amounting to a 92 OPS+, 8% below league average. He has hit for very little power, just 12 doubles and 7 home runs, and his .128 isolated power is his lowest since 2008. He has stolen 15 of 18 bases- his speed hasn’t suddenly disappeared- but it’s not enough.
Which outfield is better? Desmond Jennings, Upton, and Matt Joyce from left to right or Joyce, Jennings, and Ben Zobrist? There is no doubt that the second option is better right now. But what about Zobrist’s position of second base? Well, you have Jeff Keppinger, Brooks Conrad, Will Rhymes, Sean Rodriguez, and second base is even starting shortstop Elliot Johnson‘s natural position- and oh, by the way, Johnson has a 106 OPS+ to Upton’s 92. OPS+ isn’t everything and we’re only looking at one season here, but Johnson has been 14% better than Upton by that measure. Johnson entered the season as the Rays’ 25th man on the roster. Upton looked to break out. One of them broke out.
Even Reid Brignac is an option as he has rediscovered something at Triple-A after a horrific start first in the big leagues and then down there. Calling up Brignac would give the Rays much better defense at shortstop, plugging a huge hole for the Rays, and if he hits halfway-decently, suddenly the Rays have a good situation at second base with Johnson and Zobrist is free to play right field with Jennings in center and Joyce in left. Then you have third base being an issue until Longoria comes back (with one of the second base candidates playing there), but it has to at least be a consideration. B.J. Upton just isn’t so valuable to this team anymore.
The Rays were willing to keep Upton on their team even as he approaches free agency, because they believed that Upton would help their team win. He has not done so very well. According to Baseball-Reference, Upton has been worth just 0.3 WAR (wins above replacement), tied for 16th on the team and tied for 9th among batters. By Fangraphs’s WAR, he’s tied for 10th on the team and tied for 5th among batters. Upton has just not been valuable for them this season. Maybe the Rays are best off heading in another direction. Heck, they’re heading in another direction following the season! Oh, and by the way, the process of getting compensation draft picks isn’t nearly as easy anymore for free agents classified as Type A, which Upton seems likely to qualify for. You can’t just offer a player salary arbitration and if he signs elsewhere you get a pick. No. Instead, you have to make him a qualifying offer, worth at least 12 million dollars per season, and then if he turns you down you get your draft pick. The Rays can’t do that! Imagine if he accepted!
B.J. Upton’s value is at is low point right now. But trading him is better than getting nothing in return. The Rays need to wait for Matt Joyce to return no matter what. But imagine if Joyce returns a few days before the deadline (as he is expected to do), Longoria progresses towards returning, and Upton is on a hot streak. If a team offers Andrew Friedman the just about major-league ready catcher the Rays so desperately need along a few other promising prospects, how could Friedman not pull the trigger even if the Rays continue to contend?
Trading B.J. Upton isn’t as crazy as it seems. Will it happen?