Thursday, November 29, 2012

It's What We Call A Win-WIn

Yesterday, former Rays center fielder B.J. Upton agreed in principle to a 5-year $75 million contract with the Atlanta Braves. Today, Upton officially signed the contract, and the Braves held a subsequent press conference officially announcing the news. After weeks of scouting, crunching numbers, and meetings, the Braves front office zeroed in on Upton as their first choice to take over for departing outfielder Michael Bourn in center field. At the same time, numerous reports came out speaking of the Phillies desire to sign Upton as well. While the Phillies may have been showing interest in Upton in order to increase the amount of money the Braves would need to pay to secure the former Ray, most in the business took the Phillies as a serious threat. It has been reported that the Phillies would not go higher than 5/55 for Upton (numerator is years/denominator is total amount of money), a sign that they either valued him less, saw some flaws that Atlanta either didn't see or overlooked, or truly want another center fielder, but couldn't be seen not going for Justin's older brother.

Nonetheless, the fact remains that Upton is now a Brave, in he'll remain a Brave for 5 more seasons. The Braves, unlike the Phillies, are not willing to spend large sums of money on free agents. An obvious and germain fact given that the contract they gave Upton is the largest ever shelled out by the Braves to a free agent. Atlanta, being a mid-market team, likes to build through the draft, and use their money to either fill in the rest of the spots on the roster or make a splash with one or two bigger names. Up till now, the team had been using the former approach as opposed to the latter. On the other hand, does this most recent signing point to a team that's going to be very active in free agency? It might, but it doesn't imply that Atlanta is focusing any less energy on building their organization from within.

I recently wrote an article about qualifying offers. Essentially, a qualifying offer is a one-year contract offered by a team to a top-50 free agent. The player then has a specific amount of time to decide whether to accept or not. If the player rejects it, hoping to score a longer more lucrative deal on the open market, his former team will now receive a compensatory pick at the end of the first round of next year's draft. The team making the qualifying offer must be willing to have the player accept the deal. This can be difficult for mid-level and small market teams because the value of this one-year deal is usually high, $13.5 million this offseason.

Now that you're caught up on qualifying offers, I can explain the genius behind the Braves recent moves. First a time line.

1) 2012 season ends, Michael Bourn and B.J. Upton head for free agency
2) The Braves make a qualifying offer to Bourn, and the Rays do the same for Upton
3) Both players reject the qualifying offers allowing them to sign with any team they desire
4) Braves sign B.J. Upton to 5-year $75 million contract

Signing Upton means that the Braves won't be resigning Michael Bourn. When Bourn signs with a different team, the Braves will receive a compensatory pick at the end of the first round to replace the first round pick they lost when they signed Upton. Okay, so the pick they will receive for Bourn won't be as high in the first round as the pick the team relinquished, but they now have a center fielder, and still have a 1st round pick. That's the definition of a win-win situation, perfect for a mid-market team.

A small market team wouldn't have the capital to spend on a free agent like Upton, so the prospect of losing a first-round draft pick doesn't exist. This situation is perfectly depicted by the Rays, who will receive a compensatory pick for losing Upton, but won't relinquish their own 1st round pick as they won't be spending money on a top-50 free agent. A big market team, say the Dodgers, have such a plethora of money to spend on free agents at any given time that the loss of a draft pick is a reasonable price to pay. Really, it isn't a good price to pay because draft picks equal capital as much as money in the bank, but big market teams have the flexibility to care less and spend more.

So, the Braves made out like bandits. They will still pick in the first round, and will have a PECOTA predicted 2+ WARP average player for the next 5 seasons. Some of this was made possible by circumstance. If the Braves hadn't had a top 50 free agent they didn't want to resign, signing Upton would have been more costly. So, while it was a win-win for the Braves, as will all things in Baseball, luck and randomness played a part. Still, let's not forget, the job of good front office personnel is to make the best out of the given situation, something Frank Wren's staff performed exceptionally well.

Now that we have correctly congratulated the Braves for a job well done, what comes next? The Phillies, who supposedly lost out on the Upton sweepstakes, still need to find the team's next center fielder. The list may have shrunk by one, but numerous options remain for Ruben Amaro and the Phillies front office. Josh Hamilton, who I argue should be moved to a corner outfield spot, the aforementioned Michael Bourn, Angel Pagan, and Shane Victorino are all still free agents looking for a home. The team could look to trade to fill the post, with Dexter Fowler, Peter Bourjos, and Denard Span rumored to be possible trade candidates, but that costs prospects, not money. More likely, the Phillies are either looking to make a big splash, something they have been prone to do in the recent history, by signing Josh Hamilton, or have something else up their sleeve. With the winer meetings coming up and Upton now a Brave, the chances of the Phillies having a new center fielder very soon has gone up considerably, only adding to the fire in the hot stove.

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