`A player who has always had tremendous potential but has never put it all together heads to free agency tempting teams with his upside but also worrying them with his risk. That sentence described Edwin Jackson perfectly last year, but could very well be describing B.J. Upton this season. Both Jackson and Upton obviously have Rays connections, but the comparison between the two of them goes much deeper than that. Upton, just like Jackson last year, is 28 years old as he heads to free agency. He’s shown flashes over the years and finished off his Rays career with a bang, slamming 28 home runs to go along with 31 stolen bases, but he still managed just a .246/.298/.454 line, just a 109 OPS+, with the low OBP especially alarming. Jackson closed out 2011 with a 5-2 record and 3.58 ERA in 21 starts and a relief appearance for the Cardinals after they acquired him just before the trade deadline, but he still managed just a 5.9 K/9, a 2.7 BB/9, and a 0.9 HR/9, just a 4.01 FIP, with the low strikeout rate especially an issue. What especially stands out, though, is that Upton appears primed for a multi-year deal worth 15 million dollars a year, Jackson signed just a 1-year contract worth 11 million dollars last offseason and is back on the market this year. One reason could be that Upton slammed 18 home runs and stole 10 bases in his last 50 games with the Rays, but even during that stretch his on-base percentage was just .299. Why is Upton so much more highly-regarded than Jackson? One reason is that Upton’s career OPS+ is 105, 5% above average, while his ERA- is 104, 4% below average, and his FIP- is 101, 1% below average. In 2012 for the Nationals, Jackson showed himself to be right around an average pitcher again as he went 10-11 with a 4.03 ERA, an 8.0 K/9, a 2.8 BB/9, and a 1.1 HR/9, 3.85 FIP, in 31 starts and 189.2 IP, possibly only harming his free agent value as he’s now a year older and still just average. And while Jackson fails to mix bats despite a mid-90’s fastball and a sharp slider, Upton has proven himself to be a good power hitter and a significant stolen base threat. While Jackson and Upton have a lot in common, Upton has been able to turn more of his potential into results and teams are more confident that he’ll be able to take the next step and become the player people always thought he would be as he enters the prime of his career.
This offseason, the Rays seem extremely likely to offer Upton a qualifying offer for one year and 13.3 million dollars so they can receive a draft pick when Upton signs elsewhere. Jackson took a similar contract with the Nationals hoping that the one extra year before free agency would be enough for him to finally establish himself as a topflight pitcher, but it did not work out. You would think that Upton might be a candidate for the same type of contract, but that will not be the case as there will be better offers available and there is more faith around baseball in Upton’s abilities. And considering how Jackson’s one-year contract backfired, you can rest assured that Upton will take the security of a multi-year deal knowing that he has did everything possible with the Rays to get his maximum free agent value and the next step for him will be prove that the money he receives will be worth it for the team that signs him.