Center fielder B.J. Upton and the Atlanta Braves agreed to a five-year, $75.25 million deal on Wednesday night, marking the first big free-agent move of the offseason. The Philadelphia Phillies, who earlier in the day made some noise by making a trade with the Houston Astros, were also rumored to be very interested in attaining the 28-year-old's services, but now they and several other teams in pursuit of a center fielder will have to search elsewhere.
The center field market is ripe, so Upton's move north from Tampa to Atlanta will cause tremors that affect other players, namely Josh Hamilton, Michael Bourn, Angel Pagan and Shane Victorino. Hamilton is perceived as the jewel of this offseason's free-agent crop among position players. However, due to his age (31), mystifying injury history, and concerns off the field, some teams may be reticent to commit to him for a large sum of money over many years.
With Upton off the board, there is obviously one fewer suitor in play for the remaining batch of center fielders, meaning they have less leverage with which to bargain. For Hamilton, he has even less leverage with which to argue that he deserves more than Upton's five years since Upton is significantly younger, has a more diverse set of skills, and isn't as risky outside of the actual production. Had Hamilton been the first center fielder to sign, it is very likely he would have gotten his nine figures in total and that coveted fifth year, but he may have to settle for four years to get the kind of money he wants. Buster Olney reports the Brewers, Rangers, Red Sox, Mariners and Orioles being among the most likely destinations for the RBI machine.
Not much will change with Michael Bourn. Teams that were interested in Upton are, for the most part, also interested in Bourn because both possess great speed and steal bases effectively. Bourn doesn't have anything close to Upton's power, but has nonetheless been the better player in recent years. Since Bourn doesn't have Upton's reputation for lack of hustle and plays, by all accounts, better defense, teams will be willing to look past his light bat to bring him aboard on a four- or even five-year deal. Hamilton striking a rich deal soon would give Bourn more leverage in asking for more money than what Upton received from Atlanta. Philadelphia in particular will quickly shift their focus from Upton to Bourn while keeping the others within their purview, especially since they lack a legitimate leadoff hitter.
If one had broken the center field free-agent class into tiers, the first class would have included Hamilton, Upton and Bourn. Others, like Pagan and Victorino, would be in the second tier since they will likely go to teams that are either too poor or too patient to jump into the first-class frenzy.
Pagan may end up being the most underrated and underpaid of the bunch, having posted a total of nearly 14 WAR in the last four years according to Baseball-Reference, and that includes a terrible 1-WAR year in 2011 with the New York Mets. By comparison, Bourn has posted just over 14 WAR. Pagan may be the beneficiary of teams that miss out on the first-class bidding against each other so as not to go home without a center fielder. The Giants would love to bring Pagan back, but the same teams that had their sights on Upton and Bourn will have Pagan on file as well, so they will not be alone in their pursuit. Due to his shorter résumé than the others, Pagan could also scare some teams away by insisting on four or five years. Ken Rosenthal reports that he could sign before the winter meetings, which is smart because there are several center fielders who may be made available via trade at the winter meetings, such as Denard Span.
Victorino is particularly interesting because he has become in effect a platoon outfielder, but it goes unnoticed because he is a switch-hitter. Last season with the Phillies and Dodgers, Victorino tagged left-handed pitchers for a .906 OPS while posting an unimpressive .629 against right-handers. This is not a new thing, as he had similar splits dating back to 2010. Due to the likelihood of signing last out of the five, Victorino will also likely take home the lightest contract both in terms of years and total money. Jon Heyman reported recently that the Indians, Rangers, Yankees, Giants, Rays, Red Sox and Reds have all shown interest in Victorino, but don't count out the Phillies either if they are still left alone at the center fielder dance a month or so from now.
Every signing will have an effect on the signings that occur afterward, so this is still speculative at this point. Upton has set the standard for now, but the remaining players and their suitors will continue to act as dominoes setting up and getting knocked down until none are left standing. Center field is certainly the most interesting position to watch this offseason. By comparison, the free-agent market at third base includes such names as Placido Polanco, Eric Chavez and Jose Lopez. Grab a seat and keep a watchful eye on the center fielders as they are plucked off the board one by one.
Bill Baer runs the Phillies blog Crashburn Alley. You can follow him on Twitter @CrashburnAlley.