B.J. Upton is in line for a multiyear contract when he hits free agency this winter, and it's not easy to envision a return to Tampa Bay. The Rays habitually operate with one of the game's lowest payrolls, which means they don’t do much of their spending on the top free agents available.
Upton, who earns $7MM this year, will obtain a raise on his next contract. Recent estimates from general managers range from $27MM over three years to $70MM over five years, according to Jerry Crasnick. If that's Upton's market value, it's hard to see the Rays winning the bidding. After all, their best-paid player, James Shields, earns a base salary of $7.5MM in 2012.
But executive VP of baseball operations Andrew Friedman can still extend Upton a qualifying offer. Unless the Rays make Upton a qualifying offer they won’t be eligible to obtain draft pick compensation for their longtime center fielder. If they do make him an offer, he’d either accept the one-year contract or the Rays would get a draft pick in 2013.
While $13MM-plus -- the value of a qualifying offer -- is likely more than a small-market team would like to spend on Upton, he’d have trade value at that salary. The Rays, who once acquired Rafael Soriano after he unexpectedly accepted arbitration, could make a similar deal involving Upton.
From Upton’s standpoint, the open market might be preferable to a one-year qualifying offer. He figures to get multiyear contract offers, even if he’s tied to draft pick compensation in a market flush with strong alternatives in center field. So the most likely scenario has Upton declining the qualifying offer and setting his former team up for draft pick compensation. It’s a risk, but one the Rays might be willing to take. What should they do?