Aside from the beginning part of the season when he was injured, center field for the Rays was essentially the B.J. Upton Show. Desmond Jennings filled in at center during the beginning part of the year when Upton was out with a back injury sustained when the two collided in Spring Training.
Upton displayed his power/speed combination once again in 2012, slugging 28 home runs while swiping 31 bases. Upton also became one of eight players to have 100 home runs and 200 stolen bases before his 28th birthday, joining a group that includes Barry Bonds and Rickey Henderson. B.J. and his brother Justin both hit their 100th home runs on the same day. For the season, Rays center fielders ranked fourth in baseball in home runs, and tied for fourth in stolen bases.
Jennings went without an error in center, handling 45 chances without problem. Upton, meanwhile, only committed three errors on the season, and had ten outfield assists. The ten assists from center helped the Rays to rank tied for fourth in baseball, and tie for second in the American League. Individually, Upton was first in the American League in assists as a center fielder.
Despite the power and speed, Upton continued having problems making contact, as he finished with 169 strikeouts, fourth most in the American League. This was a major factor towards the Rays finishing 22nd in batting average and 23rd in on base percentage, despite finishing 11th in slugging. In fact, since hitting .273 with only nine home runs in 2008, Upton appears to have made a conscious decision to sacrifice his average for the sake of power.
The Rays ranked around the middle of the pack in fielding percentage, but were last in the American League in total chances. Yet, this may have been due to the Rays pitching staff, as they led the American League in strikeouts. Given the speed and fielding ability of the players the Rays plugged into center, this appears to be more of a side effect of the pitching more than anything else.
Looking Ahead To 2013:
Upton is a free agent, and likely would not be able to be retained should he hit the open market. However, there is an outside chance that the could be playing for Tampa in 2013, as the Rays are likely to place a qualifying offer on him, expected to be worth between $12Million and $13Million. Placing the offer upon Upton would allow the Rays to receive compensation should he leave.
If Upton does depart, then the Rays may end up plugging Jennings in center, should they look for an internal option. In his 26 career games in center, he has yet to make an error, and has been approximately league average in range factor. For free agents, they may attempt to go after a low cost, potential high upside player like a Grady Sizemore, otherwise their options may be limited.
Another possibility for the Rays would be to trade for a center fielder. Dexter Fowler is a possible target, and has been mentioned as a potential fit for the Rays. Another interesting player would be B.J.’s brother Justin, should the Diamondbacks make him available. As any trade for Upton would likely involve top pitching prospects, the Rays may be in position to make a move to grab his services.
While there is the outside chance that B.J. Upton is the Rays center fielder of 2013, it is more likely that the starting center fielder is someone presently outside of the organization. However, there is the possibility that the Rays slide Desmond Jennings over, and find someone to play left.